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Host of workers, volunteers helping in the extreme cold

Baltimore will be colder than nearly all of Alaska on Friday.

The National Weather Service reports temperatures will start near zero and aren't expected to rise above 15 degrees, with wind chills as low as minus-17 degrees. In Alaska, the high Friday will be 28 degrees in Fairbanks and 36 in Nome. Even Boston, with its 7 feet of snow this winter, will be two degrees warmer.

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But no one needs a meteorologist to explain it's dangerously cold outside. With temperatures 10 to 20 degrees below normal for the region, an army of public and private workers and volunteers has been on the job looking out for those most vulnerable to the frigid air — steering the homeless to shelter beds, getting the needy energy and medical help, picking up pets left outside and supplying meals to the homebound.

"I could see myself under a blanket on the sofa with a cup of tea," said Stacey Peterson, who delivers food for Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland. "But it didn't cross my mind not to come in."

On sabbatical from her job as an associate professor of communications at Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore, Peterson decided to become one of the service group's 1,500 volunteers, who are mostly retired and have an average age of 74.

That means the coldest days can as much of a hardship for volunteers as it is for the more than 1,200 people they serve with 5,000 meals daily, plus kibble for pets and, recently, scarves. But Peterson said she might be the only person regularly visiting those on her route.

The volunteers get to know clients and notify the group's case managers and other agencies when someone appears unwell or cold, said Debbie Brown, a spokeswoman for Meals on Wheels, who has delivered food herself. Other staff members make arrangements for extra meals when they fear bad weather will prevent anyone from delivering.

Volunteers and workers also have made more than a dozen extra visits this winter just to check on someone in extreme weather.

On Thursday, Peterson and an intern, Ashley Amaefula, who attends Coppin State University, delivered food to Carol Kauffman, who lives near Patterson Park. She said she appreciated the food and the company, as the weather has kept her indoors.

"It's cold," said Kauffman, as she accepted a tray of jambalaya, spiced apples and greens, as well as another tray of cold food for later. "I ain't been out, but I can see on TV, and that's enough. … I'm afraid I'll fall. It's dangerous out there."

In Baltimore, officials hope more people come in from the cold.

City health officials have issued seven Code Blue alerts so far this year, activating a multiagency effort to prevent hypothermia deaths. The latest alert has been extended until Sunday, and officials have made more beds available at the War Memorial building, as well as emergency meals for seniors, according to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

There have been six cold-weather deaths in the city so far this year, with alcohol contributing to at least three, officials said. The statewide total of cold-weather deaths this winter is 21.

Workers at HealthCare Access Maryland, which contracts with the city to provide homeless services, responds to 311 calls for assistance and spends about six hours a day visiting encampments and looking for people who need help.

In the cold, they drive people to the shelters, and when workers find someone suffering from hypothermia or frostbite, they call 911. Emergency departments in city hospitals also call the group when a homeless person comes in with hypothermia so they can be connected to social services.

Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore City health commissioner, urged people to watch out for the elderly, children, those with medical problems, the homeless and those who may be suffering in the cold at home. She also cautioned residents not to use dangerous sources of heat, such as ovens, candles or improperly ventilated generators.

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"We've all come together against the extreme cold weather," Wen said. "People need to take precautions, seek help when they need it and help those around them."

In addition to its two year-round facilities, Baltimore County is operating an emergency shelter that has been open 52 frigid evenings from November to January, plus every day but two in February. Officials encourage homeless residents to use libraries, restaurants and malls during the day, but, since the extreme cold came, the shelter has stayed open during the day, too.

Anne Arundel County made public libraries and district police stations available as warming stations, with water and restroom facilities, and encouraged people to prepare their homes, cars and pets for the cold.

Howard County also made shelters available and officials there and elsewhere urged residents to protect themselves from frostbite by covering their heads, dressing in layers, wearing mittens rather than gloves, and wearing scarves to prevent extremely cold air from reaching the lungs.

Also, government officials warn that people should be alert to the hazards of carbon monoxide; the odorless and colorless gas, produced by gasoline engines, generators, and regular and wood-burning stoves, can be lethal. Heat from the machines also poses the risk of fire and burns.

Maryland residents can call 211 for heating and housing assistance.

There are several programs to help people pay for heat, cut energy use or manage their bills, including the Fuel Fund of Central Maryland, launched in 1981 with money from Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.

BGE also has a program that allows customers to avoid paying for spikes in usage when it's extremely cold or hot by spreading the costs over the year. Customers now can enroll immediately, without a one-month delay.

"In extreme cold, people use more heat, but heating systems only account for about 40 percent of the bill," said Rachael Lighty, a BGE spokeswoman. "People are home more when it's so cold, so they use more energy for TV, computers and video games. We have tips online on how to save."

Many people are likely to remain inside into the weekend. Friday night will bring a chance of flurries after midnight and a low around 8 degrees. A dusting of snow is in the forecast Saturday with a high of 29 degrees.

The latest temperatures have been hovering around record lows. Wednesday's high of 18 degrees set a record for the date, according to Kevin Whit, a National Weather Service meteorologist. It was one degree colder than it was on this day in 1903. But the low of 4 degrees was one degree warmer than it was in 1979.

Thursday would set a record if the temperature had dipped below 5 degrees before midnight.

Whit said there would be a "brief warm trend, or milder trend, slightly above normal" Sunday when the high will be near 44 degrees. But it will also be raining.

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School delays and closings

Closed: Baltimore City public schools, Harford County public schools

Two-hour delay: Public schools in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties.

For information about school closings and delays, go to baltimoresun.com/schoolclosings

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