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Updated 06 March 2014

Blackout!

The power's out. Again. And it's not just annoying - it can be dangerous too. Here's how to survive the dark.

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The longer the power's out during a blackout, the greater the risk of road accidents, falls, food spoilage and heat-related illness.

But you can easily stay safe with these common-sense tips next time you're plunged into darkness:

Brilliant batteries
Keep a working, battery-operated torch and batteries in an easily accessible place in your home, and why not carry a small torch in a bag or pocket when you go out. LED torches come in very small sizes and can even be used as keyrings.

Candles are romantic, but they’re a real fire risk. If you must use them, don’t leave them burning untended – especially not if you have children in the home. Rather don’t read in bed with a candle; the risk of falling asleep with it burning just isn't worth it.

Invest in a portable, battery-operated radio (or TV), and keep it with your torch. This is good for emergencies generally – you can pick up broadcasts and stay informed. (Also, it helps keep you entertained till the power comes back on.)

Switch it off
If the power goes out, it's safer to simply turn off (better yet, disconnect) electrical appliances you were using. Keep one light 'on' to alert you when the power returns. If your on/off switches aren’t clearly apparent, then mark them with a piece of masking tape or Prestik. When the power comes back on, it may do so with a momentary surge that can damage appliances such as computers.

Meltdown
There is a risk, especially in summer, of refrigerated food spoiling during a blackout. However, it does take a while for the temperature in a fridge to rise.

According to the Red Cross, as long as you keep the fridge door closed, a blackout lasting under four hours shouldn’t cause food spoilage. A freezer should keep frozen food safe for at least a day. It’s a good plan to have alternative snacks on hand that don’t need refrigeration while you’re waiting for the power to come back on, but it’s not the end of the world if you have to open the fridge door briefly.

Most medications that require refrigeration can be kept in a closed fridge for several hours without spoiling. To be sure about this though, check with your doctor or pharmacist.

If you’re expecting power outages, fill plastic containers with water, leaving some space inside each to compensate for expansion during freezing, and put these in your fridge and freezer. This water, which cools down more slowly than air in the fridge, will help keep food cold if the power goes out.

Read more: Generator gas a killer

Stay home
Avoid taking unnecessary car trips, especially at night: lack of street lighting and traffic lights that are not working raise the risk of road accidents.

Also, you don't want to have to get back into your house from a darkened street. Studies have shown that crime rates often go up in many parts of the world during blackouts (although, curiously, not always*).

Keep the fuel tank of your car full, because petrol station pumps may not be able to pump petrol when the power’s out. This is always a good idea in any crisis situation in which you might need motorised transport.

If you're expecting blackouts, rather don’t use building lifts if you can help it.

Chill out
Another reason to "chill out" at home if you can, is the danger of heat-related conditions during summer power outages. You can’t rely on air conditioning and electric fans to keep your cool, so open doors and windows, take in plenty of fluids, and generally stop rushing about.

Keep an eye particularly on children in this regard, as well as ill or elderly relatives, who are more vulnerable to heat-related problems. Learn to recognise the symptoms of conditions like heat exhaustion, heat stroke and dehydration, and know which first aid steps to take.

Don’t leave them alone in the dark
Blackouts pose a different level of risk to the elderly, infirm or disabled, so if you know of vulnerable people living alone in your area, check on them to see if they need help or support. Even if there’s no immediate health or safety risk, a blackout at night can be very frightening if you’re on your own.

People using any power-dependent life-support equipment at home need to know well in advance from the manufacturer, their health professional and possibly their electricity supplier what alternatives would be available during a blackout.

*For example, during the 2003 New York blackout, when many people were stranded overnight on the streets, there was no rise in the crime statistics. This was in sharp contrast to the city's 1977 blackout, when there was looting and arson. One possible explanation is New Yorkers' sense of solidarity that grew out of the 2001 World Trade Centre tragedy.

(Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, updated January 2008)

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First aid for heat stroke
For tips to avoid food poisoning, see Don’t poison your guests

 
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