Many of us who live in urban centres don't worry too much about power failures and big winter storms. We feel smug that, whatever Mother Nature throws at us, we can handle it. But then something comes along to remind us that maybe Mother Nature holds the upper hand after all. Ask the residents of Buffalo, New York, who are digging out after a six-foot -- yes, that's foot -- snowfall. Or ask those who live in cities such as Montreal and Kingston, Ontario, who went without power for days after an ice storm in 1998.

Even during a normal Canadian winter, people die or are injured because they didn't take the simplest safety precautions. Here's a quick refresher course of what to do when the snow flies.

Snow Shovelling

If you're not used to physical activity, or if you have a history of heart attacks or back trouble, hire somebody else to shovel your snow. If you are shovelling your own snow, treat it as you would any other exercise by warming up your muscles before digging in. Take it slow and if it hurts, stop!

If you have a snow thrower, you'll be the most popular person on the street. Often when a snow thrower is being used, especially if the snow is wet, the chute gets clogged. If this happens, turn off the machine, wait for all the moving parts to stop, and then use a stick to clear the chute. Never put your hands inside the chute for any reason. Most snow throwers also have a control that makes it stop within five seconds after the operator lets go of the controls. Never disable this feature. For more information about snow throwers, visit the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute website.

If you have gas heating, don't use a plow or use a snow thrower near the gas meter or piping, or shovel snow so that it covers the equipment. Use a broom to gently clear snow off the equipment. Sometimes melting snow from a roof or eaves, or drifting snow can cause an icy build-up on the equipment, which could interrupt the gas flow or cause gas appliances to malfunction. Don't kick or hit the meter or piping to knock off ice or snow. If you have a problem or see ice build-up, call your gas company.

Indoor Preparations

Hopefully you remembered to have your furnace cleaned and serviced during the summer months. If not, get it checked as soon as possible. The same holds true for the chimney if you plan to use a fireplace.

If you burn wood indoors, store it outside under a cover to protect it from rain and snow. Wood that is stored inside will dry out and burn too quickly. It also brings added moisture into the home, and can also provide a winter home for insects.

The Y2K threat prompted many people to have survival equipment in their homes, but now that the hype has died down, much of that gear may have been used for a camping trip or last summer's vacation. Here's what every home should have readily available in case of a winter emergency:

  • First aid supplies; prescription medication for family members who need it.
  • Candles, matches.
  • A flashlight, batteries and a battery-powered radio.
  • Cash.
  • Non-perishable, nutritious, ready-to-eat food that you and your kids don't mind eating.
  • Drinking water -- at least one litre per person, per day.
  • Manual can and bottle openers.
  • Cutlery, disposable dishes and plates, a knife, garbage bags.
  • Toilet paper and other personal supplies.
  • Blankets or sleeping bags.
  • A change of clothing and winter footware.
  • Pet supplies if needed.
  • Copies of important papers and emergency phone numbers of friends and family.
  • Playing cards and small games.

If You Have A Power Failure

Don't over-react. Unplug sensitive electronic equipment and computers so there won't be a surge when the power comes back on. Don't open your freezer a full freezer will keep the food frozen for 24 to 36 hours if you keep the door shut. Don't try using a charcoal or gas barbecue, or home generating equipment, indoors. Don't leave burning candles unattended.

For more information about dealing with a winter emergency, visit the Saint John Ambulance Canada or Emergency Preparedness Canada websites.

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