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Winter Weather

Extreme winter weather is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people in the U.S. each year, primarily due to traffic accidents, fires from improper use of heaters, overexertion and exposure.

Winterize Your Home

Take the time now to get your home ready for the winter season by following these tips:

  • Have your heating system checked by a professional annually. This will ensure that your system is working safely and efficiently which, in turn, will save you money. If you heat by wood, clean your fireplace or stove. Have your chimney flue checked for any buildup of creosote and then cleaned to lessen the risk of fire.
  • Make sure your home is properly insulated. If necessary, insulate walls and attic. This will help you to conserve energy and reduce your home’s power demands for heat.
  • Caulk and weather-strip doors and windowsills to keep cold air out.
  • Install storm windows or cover windows with plastic from the inside. This will provide an extra layer of insulation, keeping more cold air out.
  • Inspect and flush your water heater.
  • Clean gutters. Leaves and other debris will hamper drainage.
  • Replace batteries of smoke, heat and carbon monoxide detectors. If you did not do it when you set the clocks back, do it now.
  • To keep pipes from freezing:
    • Wrap pipes in insulation or layers of old newspapers
    • Cover the newspapers with plastic to keep out moisture
    • Let faucets drip a little to avoid freezing
    • Know how to shut off water valves

Familiarize yourself with the following terms to stay alert and prepared:

  • Winter Weather Advisory – cold, ice and snow are expected.
  • Winter Storm Watch – severe winter weather such as heavy snow or ice is possible within the next day or two.
  • Winter Storm Warning – severe winter conditions have begun or are about to begin.
  • Blizzard Warning – heavy snow and strong winds will produce a blinding snow, near zero visibility, deep drifts and life-threatening wind chill.
  • Frost/Freeze Warning – below freezing temperatures are expected.

Winter Storm Tips

  • Make sure your emergency supply kit is stocked and winter storm ready.
  • Consider buying rock salt to melt ice on walkways and sand to improve traction.
  • Make sure you have sufficient heating fuel. Regular fuel sources may be cut off.
  • Consider emergency heating equipment and fuel (a gas fireplace, wood burning stove, kerosene heater, or fireplace) so you can keep at least one room of your house warm enough to be livable.
  • If you have a fireplace, store a supply of firewood.
  • Keep fire extinguishers on hand, and make sure your family knows how to use them.
  • Winterize your home to extend the life of your fuel supply. Insulate walls, attics, doors and windows.
  • Install storm windows or cover windows with plastic.
  • Do not overexert yourself or work outside for extended periods of time.

Ice dams

Ice dams are an accumulation of ice at the lower edge of a sloped roof. When interior heat melts the snow, water can run down and refreeze at the roof’s edge, where it’s much cooler. If the ice builds up and blocks water from draining off the roof, water is forced under the roof covering and into your attic or down the inside walls of your house.

To help reduce the risk of ice dams:

  • Make sure your gutters are clear of leaves and debris.
  • Keep the attic well ventilated so snow doesn’t melt and refreeze on the roof’s edge.
  • Make sure the attic floor is well insulated to minimize the amount of heat rising through the attic from within the house.

Bursting Pipes

Bursting pipes occur when frozen water causes a pressure buildup between the ice blockage and the closed faucet. Pipes in attics, crawl spaces and outside walls are particularly vulnerable to extreme cold. To keep water in your pipes from freezing:

  • Fit exposed pipes with insulation sleeves or wrapping to slow heat transfer.
  • Seal cracks and holes in outside walls and foundations near water pipes with caulking.
  • Keep cabinet doors open to allow warm air to circulate around pipes.
  • Keep a slow trickle of water flowing through faucets connected to pipes that run through an unheated or unprotected space.

Protecting Water Pipes

To prevent the mess and aggravation of frozen water pipes, protect your home, apartment or business by following the simple steps below.

Before Cold Weather
  • Locate and insulate pipes most susceptible to freezing, typically those near outer walls, in crawl spaces or in the attic.
  • Wrap pipes with heat tape (UL approved).
  • Seal any leaks that allow cold air inside where pipes are located.
  • Disconnect garden hoses and shut off and drain water from pipes leading to outside faucets. This reduces the chance of freezing in the short span of pipe just inside the house.
When It’s Cold
  • Let hot and cold water trickle at night from a faucet on an outside wall.
  • Open cabinet doors to allow more heat to get to un-insulated pipes under a sink or appliance near an outer wall.
  • Make sure heat is left on and set no lower than 55 degrees.
  • If you plan to be away: (1) Have someone check your house daily to make sure the heat is still on to prevent freezing, or (2) drain and shut off the water system (except indoor sprinkler systems).
If Pipes Freeze
  • Make sure you and your family knows how to shut off the water, in case pipes burst. Stopping the water flow minimize the damage to your home. Call a plumber and contact your insurance agent.
  • Never try to thaw a pipe with an open flame or torch.
  • Always be careful of the potential for electric shock in and around standing water.

Clearing Your Roof

As the snow and ice continues to build up, homeowners should think about safety before trying to clear the snow from their roof.

Here are some safety tips:

  • Watch for snow accumulation on the leeward (downwind) side of a higher-level roof, where blowing snow will collect.
  • When possible, use long-handled snow rakes or poles.
  • If you must use a ladder, make certain that the base is securely anchored. Ask a friend, neighbor or adult family member to hold the ladder while you climb.
  • Know where the snow is going to fall before clearing the area.
  • Make certain not to contact electrical wires.
  • If possible, do not attempt to clear the roof alone.
  • If you are afraid of heights or think the job is too big for you, HIRE HELP.
  • Remove snow from basement stairwells, window wells and all walls. Melting snow can lead to water damage and moisture intrusion.
  • Keep your attic well ventilated to maintain a temperature close to that of the outdoors to minimize the risk of ice dams forming. A warm attic melts snow on the roof, causing water to run down and refreeze at the roof’s edge, where it’s much cooler. If ice builds up and blocks water from draining, water is forced under the roof covering and into your attic or down the inside walls of your house.

Safety First for Kids

Hey, kids! Winter can be a fun-filled time when enjoying outdoor activities such as skiing, skating and sledding. However, before going out, follow these safety tips:

  • The best way to stay safe in a snowstorm is to stay inside. Long periods of exposure to severe cold increase the risk of frostbite or hypothermia.
  • If you go out to play after the storm, dress in many layers of clothing and wear a hat and mittens. Many layers of thin clothing are warmer than a single layer of thick clothing. One of the best ways to stay warm is to wear a hat; most body heat is lost through the top of the head.
  • Come inside often for warm-up breaks.
  • If you start to shiver a lot or get very tired, or if your nose, fingers, toes or earlobes start to feel numb of turn very pale, come inside right away and tell an adult. These are signs of hypothermia and frostbite. If you experience these symptoms, you will need immediate attention to prevent further risk.

Remember these tips when you go out to play.

Neighbor Helping Neighbor

If someone you know is elderly or dependent on life-sustaining or health-related equipment such as a ventilator, respirator or oxygen concentrator, you should make plans now to ensure their needs are met during severe winter weather and possible power outages.

  • Help them stock a home disaster kit including a flashlight and extra batteries, a battery-operated radio, bottled water, non-perishable foods, essential medicines, and extra blankets or sleeping bags.
  • Check on them after a storm or power outage. Register them as a special needs customer with their utility so they will become a priority customer. Notify others who could provide help such as neighbors, relatives, nearby friends and local emergency responders such as the fire department.
  • Have a list of emergency numbers readily available.
  • Have a standby generator or an alternative source of power available. Be aware of the safety rules for its use.

Protecting Pets

Winter is a time we should pay close attention to the safety of our pets. Here are some safety tips to follow:

  • Ingesting anti-freeze can be fatal for your dog or cat. It has a sweet taste and even a tiny amount can cause severe kidney damage and even death. If you spill some, soak it up immediately. (Clay kitty litter works well. Discard the litter once the anti-freeze has been absorbed.)
  • Pets that live outdoors should be fed a bit more in the winter because they need the extra calories to stay warm. They also should have fresh water put out a couple of times a day, or consider a special bowl that prevents the water from freezing.
  • If your pet goes outdoors, be aware of the temperature. Pets can get frostbite very easily on the ears, tail and paws.
  • When walking your dog, check the paws to make sure that ice is not building up between the toes and that salt from the roads is not irritating the skin.
  • If your dog is a swimmer, keep it on a leash around open water or unstable ice. Hypothermia can set in quickly and the dog may be unable to get out of the water.
  • Before you start your car, you should honk the horn to make sure that a cat has not decided to nap in a warm spot under the hood of the vehicle.
  • If decorating for the holidays, keep ornaments out of the reach of your pets. Remember that poinsettias, holly, mistletoe and other plants can be toxic if ingested.

Safety on the Road

When winter storms strike, do not drive unless necessary.

  • If you must travel, make sure you car is stocked with survival gear like blankets, a shovel, flashlight and extra batteries, extra warm clothing, set of tire chains, battery booster cables, quick energy foods and brightly-colored cloth to use as a distress flag.
  • Keep your gas tank full to prevent gasoline freeze-up.
  • If you have a cell phone or two-way radio available for your use, keep the battery charged and keep it with you whenever traveling. If you should become stranded, you will be able to call for help, advising rescuers of your location.
  • Make sure someone knows your travel plans.

Winterize Your Vehicle

Preparing your vehicle for the winter season now will help ensure your vehicle is in good working order when you need it most.

  • Have a mechanic check the following items on your vehicle:
    • Battery
    • Wipers and windshield washer fluid
    • Antifreeze
    • Ignition system
    • Thermostat
    • Lights
    • Exhaust system
    • Flashing hazard lights
    • Heater
    • Brakes
    • Defroster
    • Oil level
  • Install good winter tires. Make sure the tires have adequate tread. All-weather radials are usually adequate for most winter conditions. You may also want to carry a set of tire chains in your vehicle for heavy snow conditions.
  • Keep a windshield scraper and small broom for ice and snow removal and maintain at least a half tank of gas throughout the winter season.
  • Finally, plan long trips carefully. Listen to the local media report or call law enforcement agencies for the latest road conditions.

Drive Safely

The leading cause of death and injuries during winter storms is transportation accidents.

  • Before getting behind the wheel this winter season, every driver could learn a lesson from our school bus drivers. It is elementary, but we have to keep our vehicles clear of ice and snow. Good vision is a key to good driving.
  • Plan your stops and keep more distance between cars. Be extra alert. Remember, snowdrifts can hide smaller children. Moreover, always match your speed to the road and weather conditions.

Trapped in a Car

What would you do if a blizzard trapped you on the road?

Here are some tips to follow:

  • Stay in your car and wait for help to find you.
  • Run your engine for short periods of time to stay warm. Keep your down-wind window open and make sure your exhaust pipe is clear of snow.
  • Turn on the dome light at night when you are running the engine to signal rescuers.
  • Hang a brightly colored piece of cloth or piece of clothing from your car.
  • Exercise from time to time by vigorously moving arms, legs, fingers and toes to keep blood circulating and to keep warm.

Outdoor Safety

Dress for the Season

Winter has arrived and you should dress for the season.

  • Wear loose, lightweight, warm clothing in several layers. Trapped air between the layers acts as an insulator. Layers can be removed to avoid perspiration and subsequent chill.
  • Outer garments should be tightly woven, water repellent and hooded.
  • Always wear a hat or cap on your head since half of your body heat could be lost through an uncovered head.
  • Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect your lungs from extreme cold.
  • Mittens, snug at the wrist, are better than gloves because fingers maintain more warmth when they touch each other.
Physical Exertion

Winter storm conditions and cold waves are the deadliest types of weather.

Cold temperatures put an extra strain on your heart. Heavy exertion, such as shoveling snow, clearing debris or pushing a car, increase the risk of a heart attack.

To avoid problems, remember these tips:

  • Stay warm, dress warm and SLOW DOWN when working outdoors.
  • Take frequent rests to avoid over exertion.
  • If you feel chest pain STOP and seek help immediately.
Winter Sports Safety

Iowa offers an abundance of sports activities during the winter season. From skiing and snowboarding to ice climbing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits, parents and children should follow the safety rules of the sport.

  • Most importantly, use the proper equipment and check to make sure everything is in proper working condition. A well-fitting ANSI/SNELL certified helmet will assure a safer, more enjoyable wintertime experience whether you are skiing, sledding, snowboarding or skating.
  • Dress in multiple, lightweight layers to stay warm and dry while enjoying the outdoors. Check the weather forecast but be prepared for anything.
  • If you are heading into the backcountry, never travel alone. Let someone know your route and estimated time of return.
  • Skiers and snowboarders should go on runs that are appropriate for their ability. Stay in control at all times and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects. Obey all posted signs and warnings.
  • No matter what sport you participate in, always focus 100 percent of your attention on the activity and the terrain you are on. Moreover, rest when you are tired.
Safe Sledding

Winter is a fun time for children, but it also may be dangerous. Parents should be aware of some simple safety tips for their children when they go sledding or tobogganing:

  • Children should never use streets or roads for sledding unless they are blocked off from traffic.
  • Children should sled only during daytime hours.
  • Do not sled on icy hills. Sledding hills should be only snow covered.
  • Avoid sledding over snow bumps or anything that may cause the sled to become airborne.
  • Never sled alone. An adult should always accompany small children.
  • Children should stay out of the paths of other sledders. In addition, if the slopes become busy, they should move off them quickly.

Parents, if you are sledding with your children, follow these rules yourselves.

Safe Skating

Winter is a fun time for children, but it also may be dangerous. Parents should be aware of some simple safety tips for their children when they go ice-skating:

  • If possible, skate at areas that have been approved and posted for ice-skating.
  • Never skate alone. Always have at least two people present.
  • Children should never be allowed to skate on a pond unsupervised.
  • Remember ice thickness is never consistent on lakes and ponds. Water currents, particularly around narrow spots, bridges, inlets and outlets are always suspect for thin ice.
  • Stay away from cracks, seams, pressure ridges, slushy areas and darker areas that signify thinner ice.
  • Never skate after dark.
Hypothermia

Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can cause hypothermia, especially in children and the elderly.

Watch for these symptoms:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Exhaustion
  • Uncontrollable shivering, followed by a sudden lack of shivering

If the person’s body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, get emergency medical assistance immediately!

Remove wet clothing, wrap the victim in warm blankets and give warm, non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated liquids until help arrives.

Frostbite

People working or playing outdoors during the winter can develop frostbite and not even know it.

There is no pain associated with the early stages of frostbite, so learn to watch for these danger signs:

  • First, the skin may feel numb and become flushed. Then it turns white or grayish-yellow. Frostbitten skin feels cold to the touch.
  • If frostbite is suspected, move the victim to a warm area. Cover the affected area with something warm and dry. Never rub it!
  • Then get to a doctor or hospital as quickly as possible.
Snow Blower Safety

Do you have a snow blower? Did you know that most snow blower injuries happen because the operator did not read the operating instructions?

So, read your owner’s manual and follow these tips:

  • Never leave your snow blower running and unattended.
  • Make sure the discharge chute is not aimed at passing motorists or pedestrians.
  • Never put your hands into the discharge chute or augers to clear stuck snow and ice.
  • Never add fuel when the engine is running and hot.
  • Make sure you know how to turn the machine off quickly.

Contact Us

Polk County Emergency Management
1907 Carpenter Avenue
Des Moines, IA 50314
(515) 286-2107

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