COLUMBIA, Mo. – Severe winter weather can bring widespread power outages, which means many Missouri families might be firing up their generators. University of Missouri Extension emergency management specialist Eric Evans urges people to use common sense when using a generator.

Gasoline-powered generators can help restore some power to homes, but if used incorrectly the generators can be deadly. Carbon monoxide (CO) can kill people in minutes. Don't use portable generators in the garage or in areas that are partially enclosed, even if the doors and windows are open, Evans warns.

"That's a very dangerous thing to do,” he said. “So you need to put the generators outside and run your extension cords into the house to run whatever device you're going to be running off that electricity. But it should be outside, away from your house three to five feet so that any of those fumes or gases are not finding their way back into your home.”

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas produced whenever fuel such as gas, oil, kerosene, wood or charcoal is burned. The initial symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to the flu and include dizziness, fatigue, headache, nausea and irregular breathing. Exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide can cause death.

"Anything that gives off gases, like anything that you would light that requires combustion - like a grill or a charcoal grill or a hibachi - a lot of people think that they can warm their house," Evans said. "They're warm temporarily, but then they end up hurting themselves because of the gas coming off of that combustible fuel."

Evans added that most generators are designed to run items like space heaters or appliances that are normally plugged into a wall socket. Small generators will not power an entire house. If a person has a generator, they need to know how to use it properly when the electricity goes out. Have items ready to be plugged into it, such as a space heater, to keep you warm.

A "must have" list includes a supply of canned or other nonperishable food and drinkable water. A good rule of thumb for water is a gallon per day. It is recommended to have enough supplies for three to five days.

"If you decide not to have a plan in place, you're going to totally rely on the government structure around you, and if there isn't a close government structure around you, you're in trouble. So you're basically putting yourself at risk, emotionally and physically, by not being prepared," Evans said.

For more information on how to prepare for the next storm and to do it safely, visit the MU Extension website.