Emergency Preparedness: Staying Safe in Winter Weather

Emergency situations can happen almost anywhere at any time.

Emergency Scenario: Winter Weather

Emergency situations can happen almost anywhere at any time. The best way to ensure the safety of your loved ones, and yourself, is to always be prepared. Winter weather can be unpredictable and even deadly. Use these tips to stay safe this winter. Having an emergency preparedness kit and an emergency preparedness plan can help you manage potentially dangerous winter weather conditions.

These terms can be used to determine the timeline and severity of an approaching storm.

Winter Weather Terms

Know the terms used to describe changing winter weather conditions and what actions to take. These terms can be used to determine the timeline and severity of an approaching storm.

Freezing rain: Rain that freezes when it hits the ground, creating a coating of ice on roads, walkways, trees, and power lines.

Sleet: Rain that turns to ice pellets before reaching the ground. Sleet also causes moisture on roads to freeze and become slippery.

Black ice: Any type of ice that forms on roadways, even when standing water on roads turns to ice as the temperature falls below freezing.

Emergency preparedness training should include instruction about the dangers of windchill and frost bite.

Windchill & Temperature

Windchill is the temperature it "feels like" when you are outside taking the wind strength into account. The National Weather Service provides a Windchill Chart to show the difference between air temperature and the perceived temperature and the amount of time until frostbite occurs.

Your emergency preparedness checklist should contain action steps appropriate for winter weather advisories and storm watches.

Winter Weather Advisory vs. Storm Watch

Winter weather advisory: Winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous. When caution is used, these situations should not be life threatening.

Winter storm watch: A winter storm is possible in your area. Tune in to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio, or television for more information. The NWS issues a winter storm watch when severe winter conditions, such as heavy snow and/or ice, may affect your area but the location and timing are still uncertain. A winter storm watch is issued 12 to 36 hours in advance of a potential severe storm. Tune in to NOAA Weather Radio, local radio, TV, or other news sources for more information. Monitor alerts, check your emergency supplies, and gather any items you may need if you lose power.

A good checklist for emergency preparedness will contain plans for winterizing your home.

Winterize Your Home

Winterizing your home helps minimize heat loss and ensures you don't spend more than is necessary to stay safe and warm. Make sure walls and the attic are insulated. Use caulking and weather stripping around windows and doors. Storm windows can help keep heat inside, or you can cover windows with plastic. Make sure your roof and rain gutters are in good repair so you don't have water intrusion. Inspect the outside of your home and cut away tree branches that could cause damage in the event of strong winds or a storm. It's a good idea to have your heater and chimneys cleaned, inspected, and serviced annually. Place newspapers, plastic, or insulation around pipes to help prevent water inside the pipes from freezing. Allow water from the faucets to drip a little to help ensure the pipes don't freeze. Know where your water shut off valve is and know how to turn it off in the event that a pipe bursts.

Keep winter emergency preparedness supplies on hand to deal with unexpected trouble.

Winter Weather Preparedness Home Kit

It's a good idea to put together an emergency preparedness kit before the winter comes. An emergency preparedness supply kit should contain items like:

  • Warm winter clothes and blankets to stay warm in the event the power goes out or the heater fails.
  • Bags of sand to improve traction if your car is stuck.
  • Shovels and snow removal equipment to keep paths around your home clear.
  • Enough fuel to stay safe and warm in the event of a power outage, heater breakdown, or if you need to stay home for an extended period of time during a bad storm or other emergency. Make sure you have sufficient dry word on hand for your wood-burning stove or fireplace.
  • Rock salt or other products to melt ice on walking paths and driveways.
Make a plan ahead of time about how you’ll communicate with your family in the event of an emergency.

Have a Plan

What is an emergency preparedness plan? It is a checklist of steps you take to be safe and survive an emergency. Prepare a Family Communications Plan before you need to use one. In the event of an emergency or disaster, your family may not be together. For times like these, it's good to know how to keep in touch, how you'll reunite, and what you'll do when disaster strikes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides weather warnings and alerts via NOAA Weather Radio. The information comes from the National Weather Service (NWS) and informs the public about all hazards. You can sign up with local authorities to receive notices from local emergency services. FEMA and the American Red Cross have apps that provide information about administering first aid, the location of shelters, and other support services in the event of an emergency.

CDC emergency preparedness encourages you to stay home during severe winter weather conditions.

Stay Close to Home

When wild winter weather hits, minimize travel. It's a good idea to keep an emergency preparedness kit and disaster supplies in your car. Keep pets inside during inclement weather. Provide ranch animals and livestock with shelter and make sure they have access to drinking water that isn't frozen.

Especially in the winter, keep enough food, water, and supplies on hand for every member of your household (including pets) in the event you can't leave the house for a few days. Keep lists for emergency preparedness items in your car, work, and home and restock supplies often so you are never without what you need.

Make sure to check off winterize your car on your emergency preparedness list.

Winterize Your Vehicle

  • Antifreeze levels: Ensure they are sufficient to avoid freezing.
  • Battery and ignition system: These should be in top condition and battery terminals should be clean.
  • Fuel and air filters: Replace and keep water out of the system by using additives and maintaining a full tank of gas. A full tank will keep the fuel line from freezing.
  • Heater and defroster: Ensure they work properly.
  • Oil: Check for level and weight. Heavier oils congeal more at low temperatures and do not lubricate as well.
  • Install good winter tires: Make sure the tires have adequate tread. All-weather radials are usually adequate for most winter conditions. However, some jurisdictions require that to drive on their roads, vehicles must be equipped with chains or snow tires with studs.
FEMA emergency preparedness urges you to have a car kit to handle unexpected dangers while on the road.

Winter Weather Preparedness Car Kit

Are you prepared if you need to drive? Minimize driving if possible, but when travel is necessary, it is recommended to keep the following in your vehicle. The FEMA emergency preparedness car kit contains:

  • A shovel
  • Windshield scraper and small broom
  • Flashlight
  • Battery-powered radio
  • Extra batteries
  • Water
  • Snack food
  • Matches
  • Extra hats, socks, and mittens
  • First aid kit with pocket knife
  • Necessary medications
  • Blanket(s)
  • Tow chain or rope
  • Road salt and sand
  • Booster cables
  • Emergency flares
  • Fluorescent distress flag
Emergency preparedness rules advise staying with your car if you are stranded in the winter.

On the Road: Stay or Go?

STAY:

  • If stuck on the road, avoid exposure by staying in the car; rescue is more likely.
  • If a safe location is neither nearby nor visible.
  • If you do not have appropriate clothing to go outside.
  • If you do not have the ability to call for help.

Only leave your car in winter conditions if you will be safe and can access help easily.

On the Road: Stay or Go?

GO:

  • If the distance to call for help is accessible.
  • If you have visibility and outside conditions are safe.
  • If you have appropriate clothing.
  • Once the storm has passed, if you are not already home, follow instructions from your local transportation department and emergency management agency to determine which route will be safest for you to get home. Drive with extra caution.

Have food for emergency preparedness and other supplies in your car in case you get stranded in harsh winter weather.

If You Are Stranded in a Vehicle

Being stranded in your car in the snow is a frightening prospect, but knowing what to do can help you get through it safely.

  • If your car breaks down, pull off the road or highway if you can, and turn on your hazard lights. If you have a handkerchief or bandana, tie it to the antenna or hang it out the window.
  • Stay in your car. Rescuers are most likely to find you there.
  • Turn on your car (if you can) and run the heater for about 10 minutes every hour to stay warm. Crack open a downwind window for ventilation. Clear any snow that may be blocking the tail pipe to help prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • If you are with others, sleep in shifts. Someone should always be awake to watch for rescue crews. Eat and drink if you have food and water available. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which will dehydrate you. Have water for emergency preparedness on hand.
  • Be aware of your car battery reserves. Turn on the lights, radio, and heat when you need them, but be mindful not to waste energy.
  • Move enough to stay warm but don't overtire yourself. If it is extremely cold, huddle if you're with others. Use floor mats, maps, and any other materials you have available for warmth.
  • At night, leave a light on inside so rescue workers are more likely to see you.
  • If your car has broken down in a remote area, use rocks or tree branches to spell a large SOS or HELP on the ground. Make your message large enough that it can be seen from the air.
  • If you have to leave the car to go find help on foot, only do so after the blizzard has passed.
Know the signs and symptoms of frostbite so you can seek medical attention quickly.

Signs of Frostbite

Frostbite is a serious condition that occurs when the skin and underlying tissue freezes. Signs and symptoms of frostbite include diminished feeling and change in color of the extremities including fingers, toes, tip of the nose, face, and earlobes. Frostbitten areas tend to look pale or white.

Action plan: Cover the affected area, but do not rub to warm it up. Frostbite requires immediate medical attention.

Red Cross emergency preparedness teaches how to recognize the signs of hypothermia and how to address it.

Signs of Hypothermia

Hypothermia is low body temperature. Signs of hypothermia include memory loss, severe shivering, slurred speech, exhaustion, sleepiness, disorientation, and incoherence.

Action plan: Hypothermia is a medical emergency. If you are with someone you suspect has hypothermia, take his or her temperature if you have access to a thermometer. Body temperature at or below 95° indicates hypothermia. Seek emergency medical treatment. While you are waiting for emergency services, move the person to a warm environment. Remove any wet clothing from the victim. Try to get the victim's core body temperature up by placing dry clothing and blankets on the patient. If the victim is conscious, encourage intake of warm, non-alcoholic beverages.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends seeking medical care in the event of frostbite. Since frostbite and hypothermia are the results of exposure to cold, always check frostbite victims for signs of hypothermia. If hypothermia is present, the patient's condition is much more serious and it's time to seek emergency medical treatment.

A storm shelter on the top of a mountain.

Storm Shelters

If you are at home when disaster strikes and the power goes out or you do not have what you need to stay safe and warm overnight, consider going to a public shelter. Make sure you can get there safely. Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 4-FEMA (43362) to find a shelter near you. For example, if your ZIP code is 20472, you would text SHELTER20472 to locate a shelter in your area.

Dress for the weather if you are headed to a shelter. Wear layers, boots, a hat, and warm gloves. Bring any items that you'll need overnight including medications and toiletries.

Emergency preparedness from the Red Cross includes making shelters available during severe weather and disasters. Find open shelters here.

Refine your emergency preparedness plan after you experience a winter storm.

Learn From Every Storm

Replenish your emergency supplies after a storm so you'll be ready for the next one. Ask yourself and your family how well the emergency plan worked. What worked and what didn't? In what areas can you improve? Restock foods for emergency preparedness in the future. Use your experience and that of neighbors and colleagues to refine your supplies and emergency plan.

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REFERENCES:

  • AAA: "Winter Driving Tips."
  • CDC: "Be Prepared to Stay Safe and Healthy in Winter", "Prevent Hypothermia & Frostbite," "Stay Safe During & After a Winter Storm," "Winter Weather Frequently Asked Questions"
  • ERH.NOAA.gov: "Safe Winter Travel"
  • FEMA.gov: "America's Prepareathon," "Family Emergency Communication Plan", "How Do I Find a Place to Stay?" "National Shelter System Fact Sheet," "How to Prepare for Winter Weather."
  • NWS.NOAA.gov: "Freezing Rain and Sleet," "NWS Windchill Chart," "Watch/Warning/Advisory Definitions," "Winter Weather Safety and Preparedness," "What to Do If You Are Caught in a Winter Storm."
  • Ready.gov: "Car Safety," "Make a Plan," "Snowstorms & Extreme Weather," "Winter Storms & Extreme Cold"
  • Red Cross: "Find Open Shelters," "Frostbite and Hypothermia."
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