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Tragedy inspires safety invention

Gresham resident creates combination for running a generator safely with dedicated outlet
by: Carole Archer, Dick Whalen and his wife, Marge, demonstrate the use of their generator to make toast inside their Gresham home Thursday, Dec. 20. The generator usually sits 25 feet from the house attached by a heavy duty extension cord to further reduce the threat of toxic fumes.

Safety is in Dick Whalen's blood.

In 1945, when the 80-year-old Gresham resident was 18, he tried to save the life of his younger brother, who was swimming in their native Homestead, Pa.

'He was swimming the length of the pool twice underwater,' Whalen said, 'which is quite an accomplishment.'

When his sibling, who was having trouble breathing, tried to exit the pool, he fell back in. Seeing that the lifeguard was paying no attention, Whalen dove in. His brother had apparently swallowed a wad of gum that obstructed his windpipe. Despite the efforts of Whalen, rescue workers and the lifeguard Whalen punched to get his attention, the 16-year-old swimmer could not be revived.

From that moment, Whalen looked at life differently.

'I became interested in helping others in any type of disaster,' said the retired PGE lineman and firefighter. 'I just felt once I'd gone through that experience, if I had any knowledge I would share that knowledge in order to save somebody's life. It was so no one would have to go through what my family went through.'

Tired of hearing about people dying, or nearly dying, from carbon monoxide poisoning during power outages, the unassuming, but resourceful, Whalen took action. The result was a safety device prototype for portable home generators.

Whalen's simple, yet ingenious, concept keeps the gasoline-powered generator - and the carbon monoxide it produces - outside the home and off the local power grid. With a handful of items easily found at the hardware store, Whalen fashioned a permanent exterior wall input box that transfers generator power to a standard electrical outlet in the house.

'I would like to sell it as a complete kit,' he said.

Simple but effective

In a power outage, all one does is wheel a generator within a few feet of the wall box and plug the power cord into the receptacle. With the generator fired up, power flows safely through wall wiring to the inside outlet. Depending on the generator's capacity, household appliances, from a coffee maker to a refrigerator, can be plugged right in. Unless a generator is connected, the indoor outlet is dormant.

Whalen's proto-system, for which he's built three demonstration mock-ups, addresses at least three safety issues regarding household generator use. They include: 1) the carbon-monoxide-producing generator remains outside the home; 2) the in-wall system assures that no cords run through cracked doors and windows allowing gases to enter the home; and 3) the closed nature of the system separates generated power from main household wiring, eliminating the possibility that a reverse flow, or 'backfeed,' of power could injure those working on downed lines.

'Using the kit I've developed, I'm not creating any connections between my personal generator and the PGE electric system,' he said.

Whalen's household kit also provides an unobtrusive visual reminder that, if power service fails, a household can continue at some functional level. He may or may not seek a patent to market his kit, but Whalen believes the Safer Way Portable Generator Connector should be standard equipment.

'I've been told by everyone who understands and looks at this product that it should be available in commercial stores,' he said. 'If someone came into a store to buy a generator specifically for power outage, he could also pick up this kit. That would be the ideal situation.'

Avoiding tragedy

The system would reduce or eliminate a growing number of carbon monoxide poisonings resulting from improperly placed gas-powered generators during power outages. One such situation occurred in Gresham a year ago.

On Dec. 15, 2006, the six-member Liefferth family nearly perished at their Northeast Scott Drive house. The family set up a generator in the attached garage and left the overhead door up for ventilation. However, pressure from one of the worst windstorms in years pushed fumes into the house.

'Carbon monoxide fumes are hard to move out,' said Fire Marshal Gus Lian, Gresham Fire and Emergency Services, at the time. 'They are heavier and thicker than oxygen, so they sink to ground level. Without there being proper ventilation, there was no way for the carbon monoxide to escape.'

After family patriarch Shawn Lifferth woke up with a headache and feeling disoriented, paramedics rushed all six family members to Portland hospitals to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning.

In addition to this near-tragedy, a seemingly innocuous detail in a home generator ad also inspired Whalen. A photo shows a generator sitting outside the garage door of a suburban house, but something's not quite right.

'The power cord goes under the garage door,' Whalen noted.

And where there is a gap - in a door, window or wherever - gases, including deadly carbon monoxide, will creep through.

'I just knew there was a better way of using power from a portable generator in a home,' he said. 'I only pursued it after the family in Troutdale was overcome by fumes.'

Safety comes first

With encouragement from a Gresham fire official, Whalen started researching.

Jim Klum, deputy chief of Gresham Fire and Emergency Services, hopes Whalen will market his proto-kit.

'It allows the transfer of power without any risk of carbon monoxide leaks,' Klum said. 'Everything about it is good.'

Whalen's mock-ups are small sections of a typical house wall that show exterior siding on one side and drywall on the other. The wiring and plug connections are all in place.

'If you use a generator,' Klum said, 'you have to have a way to get power inside the house. It's nearly impossible to not breach the integrity of a wall or window. He's come up with a way to do it where that doesn't happen.'

As much as Whalen would like his idea to catch on, he's reluctant to take on the complexities of patents and marketing.

'If I get enough encouragement, I may go get a small businessman's loan,' he said. 'Maybe a small company will pick it up. So long as people have a choice.

'I'm interested in saving lives.'

Power failure tips

The city of Gresham's Web site offers several tips on emergency preparedness, including what and what not to do in the event of a power outage. Some of these are listed below.

• Check fuse or breaker box for blown fuses or tripped circuits. If OK, check if neighbors are without power.

• Call your utility company immediately. They may ask for information, or you may hear a message if someone else already reported the situation.

• Turn off all electrical equipment to prevent overloading the system when power is restored.

•Turn on a porch light and one inside light so you and utility crews will know when the power is restored.

• Listen to your battery-powered radio for updates on major electrical outages.?If your neighbor's power comes back on, but yours does not, call your utility company again.

• If using a portable generator, keep it outside only. Do not put it in a garage or any space that is covered. If at all possible, avoid feeding power cables and extension cords through cracked doors or windows.

Emergency lighting:

• Flashlights: Each person should have their own flashlight. Store extra bulbs and batteries.

• Lightsticks: These are self-contained chemical lights that activate by bending them. They work well as nightlights for children.

• Candles: These can be dangerous if improperly used. Set them in low, wide cans (putting sand in the cans is also a good idea). Keep them away from curtains and flammable furniture and especially keep them out of the reach of children.

The city of Gresham's Emergency Managment site is found at www.ci.gresham.or.us/departments/ocm/em/electric.asp.