With energy bosses in Britain muttering darkly about potential power cuts, the end of 2013 will have seen many people pausing to think how they might cope if and when the lights go out.
The start of 2014 has, however, made power cuts a reality for many thousands across the country, as storms and flooding have brought down electricity cables and deluged sub-stations.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the US and Canada have also been hard-hit over the Christmas and New Year holiday season. Normally harsh seasonal conditions were added to by a severe winter weather system and a 'polar vortex', bringing below-zero temperatures to 50 US states, with lows of -37 being recorded in Minnesota. 190 million people are reported to have been affected.
Among the many disastrous consequences has been a loss of power for hundreds of thousands of people across North America – two examples of scores drawn from across the US and Canada are that 40% of Newfoundland's population and 30,000 people in Indiana suffered from significant and lasting power outages.
We may be used to hearing winter weather horror stories, but it does seem that –for whatever reason - the frequency, severity and geographical spread of these events is increasing. If the pattern continues, it is likely that even more people will be affected, for even longer periods of time, and whilst we can do little to change matters in the short term, we can take a close look at how we deal with these emergencies.
Governments and local authorities will, no doubt, be keeping their emergency response policies under review, and power companies will be looking into how they can reduce the time it takes to get supplies back on line. What is often overlooked, especially in 'developed' countries, is the advance provision of equipment and supplies that can help populations cope when the lights go out, phone lines go down and batteries run flat.
Self-powered technology, such as dynamo-powered radios, flashlights and cell-phone chargers, can play an important part in enabling life to continue and keeping affected populations informed of the latest developments. Hand-cranked flashlights and lanterns can provide light when mains power and batteries are unavailable, hand-cranked radios can keep people informed and hand-cranked cell-phone chargers can keep people in touch with one another, and with emergency services. And, in dryer, sunnier conditions, solar-powered products can provide the same assistance.
Which sounds like an awful lot of kit to be provided to each household. But there is a range of products – not least those offered by Freeplay Energy – that combine all these functions in one robust, durable and cost-effective product.
A good example is Freeplay Tuf. Not only does this offer a powerful flashlight and a cell-phone charger, but the North American version features a multi-band radio that includes Weatherband, enabling listeners to access 7 NOAA (162Mhz) weatherband channels and keep up to date with the latest meteorological news. The European version of Tuf offers a shortwave channel in place of Weatherband – and, like its American counterpart and virtually all of Freeplay's other products, includes a highly-effective solar charging panel.
Their low unit cost makes products like Tuf ideal for provision by government agencies to large-scale populations, or for individual purchase by citizens determined not to be beaten by the weather. What they offer is practical support, security and a vital link to the outside world, should the worst happen.
The worst did happen over the 2013/14 holiday season and many people were quite literally kept in the dark. It is time for emergency preparedness services to take the 'preparedness' part of their brief seriously and consider how they can get light, power and communications into the hands of those whose mains power is threatened by extreme weather.