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Winter Weather Safety Skills

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Winter Weather Safety Skills
Frank Krahmer © Getty
Winter Weather Safety Skills

The "New" Wind Chill chart (2001)

NOAA NWS
Winter Weather Safety Skills
PhotoLink © Getty Images

Practicing winter weather safety is about more than just staying warm. It's also important that you know the types of winter precipitation as well as the dangers that each brings, know which watches and warnings are in effect for your area and what each means, know what steps to take to prepare before the storm arrives and know how to keep safe once it does.

Winter Weather Precipitation and Storm Types

The following conditions are some of the most dangerous of the cold season.

Blizzard: Blizzards are winter storms having 35+ mph winds, and considerable falling/blowing snow that reduces visibility to ¼ mile or less; these conditions will generally last for a period of 3 or more hours.

Lake Effect Snow: Snow caused by the flow of cold air over a warm body of water (usually a lake). These events are especially common near the Great Lakes regions.

Freezing Rain: Freezing rain occurs when air temperatures are above 32°F (0°C) but the surfaces of ground-level objects are below 32°F (0°C).  precipitation falls as a cold rain, then freezes on contact.

Sleet: Sleet occurs when air temperatures aloft and at the surface are below freezing, and a layer of warm air is sandwiched in-between; precipitation starts as snow, melts to rain, then refreezes before hitting the ground.

Wind Chill: A measure of how the combined effects of wind and cold are perceived by the body. A wind chill of -20 °F can cause frostbite within 30 minutes’ time.

Stay Informed

During the winter months, you should monitor the NOAA National Weather Service or your favorite weather news station so that you'll know when snowstorms are headed your way.

Depending on storm severity and the threat to your region, the National Weather Service will issue one of the following statements:

A winter weather outlook is issued when the potential for hazardous winter weather exists over the next 2-5 days.

A winter storm watch is issued when there is potential for heavy snow or significant ice accumulations to occur over the next 24-36 hours.

A winter weather advisory is issued to caution of hazardous conditions associated with a developing winter storm.

A winter storm warning is issued when a winter storm is producing or is forecast to produce heavy snow or significant ice accumulations within a specified area.

Take Action before the Storm

Build an emergency kit, develop and implement a family disaster plan, and winterize your car and home with these suggestions:
  • Identify an emergency heat/power source (such as a fireplace, wood or gas stove, generators, candles, batteries, and flashlights)
  • Keep your thermostat set above 55 °F to avoid frozen pipes
  • Keep vehicle gas tanks half-full to help discourage freezing of fuel lines
  • Stock up on non-perishable food items and bottled water for drinking
  • Move plants and animals inside or to sheltered areas

During the Storm

If driving a vehicle: Approximately 70% of winter weather injuries result from car accidents. It’s best not to travel at all during inclement weather, but if you must, make sure to:

  • Travel during daylight hours
  • Do not travel unaccompanied
  • Always inform family/friends/neighbors of your travel schedule and anticipated arrival time
  • Travel by main roads/avoid secondary roads
If stranded in a vehicle:
  • Park your car off of the roadway and turn on hazard lights
  • Remain in your vehicle unless a nearby building is visible and you can safely travel there on foot
  • Run the engine and heater every 10 minutes; to protect against carbon monoxide poisoning, vent a window and keep the exhaust pipe clear of snow

If outdoors: Dress in light-weight, loose-fitting layers of clothing to insulate the body. Because as much as 50% of body heat escapes from the head, wear a hat. If clothing gets wet, change it immediately to prevent loss of body heat.

If indoors: Monitor alternate heating sources for fire hazards. Keep rooms well ventilated to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Know Your Cold Illnesses

If you begin to exhibit signs or symptoms of any of the below, seek emergency medical assistance immediately.

  • Frostbite. Freezing of the skin and its tissue; the extremities (fingers, toes, nose, ears, etc.) are most at risk.
  • Hypothermia. A life-threatening condition in which the body dips below a temperature of 95°F (35°C) due to prolonged exposure to cold.
  • Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Overexposure to carbon monoxide reduces the body’s ability to absorb oxygen and can lead to serious tissue damage, and even death.
  • Heart Attack. Overexertion in cold temperatures (such as shoveling snow) can put a strain on the heart and cause cardiac arrest. 
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