Don't Underestimate Winter Weather

Holiday songs may conjure up images of hot chocolate, crackling fireplaces and gently falling snow, but in reality, winter weather can be deadly. Stay safe during extremely cold weather by understanding its risks and being prepared for whatever it may have in store.

Be Prepared

Planning ahead is key. Winter weather is such a common occurrence in most of the country that many underestimate its danger. Extreme cold can be a threat to your life. Many hazards are caused by winter storms: ice and snow create treacherous conditions for walkers and drivers; a loss of power may cause accidental fires or carbon monoxide poisoning; winds or a sudden thaw of snow may cause coastal flooding; and delays and closings occur when roads, airports, government offices and businesses all come to a halt due to a heavy snowfall. Don't wait for the first flake to fall to get ready. Be prepared! The following tips will help you get ready for extreme cold or winter storms:

  • Listen to weather forecasts. Local news station and National Weather Service forecasts can give you time to get ready for a storm. Listen for alerts on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) weather radio that has a battery back-up and local area alert feature. Familiarize yourself with winter storm terminology:
    • Winter storm outlook: Winter storm conditions are possible within three to five days.
    • Winter storm watch: There is a possibility of a blizzard, heavy snow, heavy freezing rain or heavy sleet within 12 to 48 hours.
    • Winter storm warning: Hazardous winter weather (heavy snow, heavy freezing rain or heavy sleet) is occurring or imminent within 12 to 24 hours.
    • Winter weather advisory: Accumulations of snow, freezing rain, freezing drizzle and sleet, which will cause significant inconveniences and, if caution is not exercised, could lead to life-threatening situations, are expected.
  • Plan ahead. Involve your children when making emergency preparations so they know where supplies are located and how to protect themselves during severe weather. Here are some actions you can take before a winter storm arrives:
  • Assemble an emergency supply kit. Have on hand three days worth of food, water and supplies for your family.
  • Install alarms. A smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector on each floor of your home can save your life. Inspect their batteries twice a year.
  • Keep your cell phone charged. Consider buying an extra battery for your phone. If your home loses power, you can charge a cell phone in your car (avoid carbon monoxide poisoning by running your car outside and not in your garage). During disasters, text messages may get through easier than voice calls.
  • Prepare your car for winter weather. Have a mechanic ensure your car's heater, tires, antifreeze, batteries and windshield wipers are in good shape. Keep your gas tank nearly full so the fuel line does not freeze. Have an emergency kit in your car. For items to include in your emergency kit, visit and click on the "Before" tab halfway down the page.
  • Purchase a fire extinguisher and be sure everyone in your household knows how to use it. Check the gauge periodically to make sure it's in the green or "full" zone.
  • Insulate your pipes. Extra insulation protects pipes from freezing. Leave cabinet doors open to expose pipes to heated air. Keep water trickling from faucets. If pipes do freeze, thaw them with a hair dryer.

For more information about planning for winter storms, read Winter Storms: The Deceptive Killers, a fact sheet compiled by, the Red Cross and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. By preparing before a storm arrives, your family will minimize potential problems, buying you peace of mind.

Practice Safety and Common Sense During Extremely Cold Weather

While your home is your shelter from the storm, preparing it for winter weather is only part of the safety equation. Once a storm arrives, it is also critical to protect your health from both the cold and the hazardous conditions that result. Take precautions to avoid these health threats:

  • Hypothermia. This serious condition occurs when your body temperature is abnormally low. Because it affects the brain, people experiencing hypothermia may be unable to think clearly and may not be able to help themselves. Individuals affected by hypothermia may show the following signs: shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. If you suspect hypothermia, seek medical help immediately. While awaiting help, it is important to warm the person from the center of the body (chest, neck, head and groin) by using blankets (electric, if available) and offering warm, non-alcoholic drinks.
  • Frostbite. Symptoms of frostbite include pale skin and numbness in extremities such as the nose, ears, cheeks, fingers and toes. Protect affected areas and seek medical help.
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning. Devices powered by gas, propane and charcoal, like generators and heaters, must be used outside, otherwise the colorless, odorless gas they create, called carbon monoxide, may poison you. Carbon monoxide detectors in your home can protect you from this silent health hazard.
  • Spoiled food. Since power outages frequently occur with storms, be mindful of the temperature of food. With the refrigerator door closed, food will stay fresh for about four hours. A full freezer will keep food cold for about 48 hours (a half-full refrigerator will stay cold for 24 hours). Throw away any food that has been exposed to over 40-degree temperatures for two or more hours, or that has an unusual color, texture or odor.
  • Road conditions. Winter storms can create particularly hazardous roads-even four-wheel drive vehicles cannot overcome icy conditions. When roads are dangerous, it's best to avoid unnecessary travel, leaving the roads clear for rescue vehicles.
  • Don't overexert. When the storm is over and you start to shovel snow, be careful not to overdo it. Your heart may already be stressed from the cold. Work slowly. Ask your doctor about performing hard work if you're on blood pressure or heart medication.
  • Need a place to stay? If your home is not safe to stay in, go to a designated shelter. To find a shelter, text "shelter [your zip code]" to 43362 (4FEMA). You can also call the Red Cross at 1- 866-GET-INFO, which connects you to a Red Cross response center where volunteers provide information including shelter locations and other vital information.

Some other helpful resources for ensuring your safety are Extreme Cold: A Prevention Guide to Protect Your Health and Safety and the Red Cross Power Outage Checklist. Be informed. Be prepared. You'll be glad you took steps to minimize your potential for disaster during extreme cold and winter storms.

For more information and to learn about other resources for winter preparedness and safety, call Military OneSource at 1-800-342-9647 to speak with a consultant.


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