The National Weather Service refers to winter storms as the “deceptive killers” because most deaths aren’t a direct result of the storms. People are injured or killed in traffic accidents on icy roads or suffer from hypothermia (low body temperature) due t being cold for a long period of time. Another major danger with winter storms is that they can knock out power.
Prepare for extremely cold weather every winter—it’s always a possibility. There are steps you can take in advance for greater wintertime safety in your home.
Prepare Your Home for Winter
Although periods of extreme cold cannot always be predicted far in advance, weather forecasts can sometimes provide you with several days’ notice. Listen to weather forecasts regularly and check your emergency supplies whenever a period of extreme cold is predicted.
If you plan to use a fireplace or wood stove for emergency heating, have your chimney or flue inspected each year. Ask your local fire department to recommend an inspector or find one in the yellow pages of your telephone directory under “chimney cleaning.”
Also, if you’ll be using a fireplace, wood stove, or kerosene heater, install a smoke detector and a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector near the area to be heated. Test them monthly and replace batteries twice a year. All fuel-burning equipment should be vented to the outside.
Your ability to feel a change in temperature decreases with age. Older people are more susceptible to health problems caused by cold. If you are over 65 years old, place an easy-to-read thermometer in an indoor location where you will see it frequently. Check the temperature of your home often during the winter months.
Insulate any water lines that run along exterior walls so your water supply will be less likely to freeze. To the extent possible, weatherproof your home by adding weather-stripping, insulation, insulated doors, and storm windows or thermal-pane windows.
If you have pets, bring them indoors. If you cannot bring them inside, provide adequate shelter to keep them warm and make sure they have access to unfrozen water.
- Insulate walls and attic.
- Caulk and weather-strip doors and windows.
- Install storm windows or cover windows with plastic from the inside.
- Insulate any water lines that run along outer walls. This will make water less likely to freeze.
- Service snow-removal equipment.
- Have chimney and flue inspected.
- Install easy-to-read outdoor thermometer.
- Repair roof leaks and cut away tree branches that could fall on your home or other structure during a storm.
Prepare Your Car for Winter
You can avoid many dangerous winter travel problems by planning ahead. Have maintenance service on your vehicle as often as the manufacturer recommends. In addition, every fall, do the following:
- Have the radiator system serviced or check the antifreeze level yourself with an antifreeze tester. Add antifreeze as needed.
- Replace windshield-wiper fluid with a wintertime mixture.
- Replace any worn tires, make sure the tires have adequate tread, and check the air pressure in the tires.
During winter, keep the gas tank near full to help avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines.
Keep your car fueled and in good working order. Be sure to check the following:
- Windshield wiper fluid (wintertime mixture)
- Brake fluid
- Emergency flashers
- Tires (air pressure and wear)
Stock up on emergency supplies for communication, food, safety, heating, and vehicles in case a storm hits.
- Make sure you have at least one of the following in case there is a power failure:
- Cell phone, portable charger, and extra batteries.
- Battery-powered radio, with extra batteries, for listening to local emergency instructions
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio receiver for listening to National Weather Service broadcasts. Learn more about NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards.
- Find out how your community warns the public about severe weather:
- Local public health and emergency management websites
- Listen to emergency broadcasts.
- Make a Family Communication Plan. Your family may not be together during an extreme winter event, so it is important to know how you will contact one another, how you will get back together, and what you will do during an emergency.
- Be sure to check on older neighbors and family members; assist as necessary.
- Know what winter storm warning terms mean:
- Winter Weather Advisory: Expect winter weather condition (e.g., accumulation of snow, freezing rain, and sleet) that could cause severe inconvenience and life-threatening hazards.
- Frost/Freeze Warning: Expect below-freezing temperatures.
- Winter Storm Watch: Be alert; a storm is likely.
- Winter Storm Warning: Take action; the storm is in or entering the area.
- Blizzard Warning: Seek refuge immediately! Snow and strong winds, near-zero visibility, deep snow drifts, and life-threatening wind chill.
- Other terms are available from NOAA.
- Turning on the stove for heat is not safe; have at least one of the following heat sources in case the power goes out:
- Extra blankets, sleeping bags, and warm winter coats
- Fireplace with plenty of dry firewood or a gas log fireplace
- Portable space heaters or kerosene heaters
- Check with your local fire department to make sure that kerosene heaters are legal in your area.
- Use electric space heaters with automatic shut-off switches and non-glowing elements.
- Never place a space heater on top of furniture or near water.
- Never leave children unattended near a space heater.
- Keep heat sources at least 3 feet away from furniture and drapes.
- Have the following safety equipment:
- Chemical fire extinguisher
- Smoke alarm in working order (Check prior to winter storm season and change batteries, if needed.)
- Carbon monoxide detector (Check prior to winter storm season and change batteries, if needed.)
- Never use an electric generator indoors, inside the garage, or near the air intake of your home because of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Do not use the generator or appliances if they are wet.
- Do not store gasoline indoors where the fumes could ignite.
- Use individual heavy-duty, outdoor-rated cords to plug in other appliances.
Cooking and Lighting Checklist
- Use battery-powered flashlights or lanterns.
- Never use charcoal grills or portable gas camp stoves indoors. The fumes are deadly.
- Avoid using candles as these can lead to house fires.
- If you do use candles, never leave lit candles alone.
Food and Safety Checklist
Have a week’s worth of food and safety supplies. If you live far from other people, have more supplies on hand. Make sure you have the following supplies:
- Drinking water
- Canned/no-cook food (bread, crackers, dried fruits)
- Non-electric can opener
- Baby food and formula (if baby in the household)
- Prescription drugs and other medicine
- First-aid kit
- Rock-salt to melt ice on walkways
- Supply of cat litter or bag of sand to add traction on walkways
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Battery-powered lamps or lanterns
(To prevent the risk of fire, avoid using candles.)
Keep a water supply. Extreme cold can cause water pipes in your home to freeze and sometimes break.
- Leave all water taps slightly open so they drip continuously.
- Keep the indoor temperature warm.
- Allow more heated air near pipes. Open kitchen cabinet doors under the kitchen sink.
- If your pipes do freeze, do not thaw them with a torch. Thaw the pipes slowly with warm air from an electric hair dryer.
- If you cannot thaw your pipes, or if the pipes have broken open, use bottled water or get water from a neighbor’s home.
- Fill the bathtub or have bottled water on hand.
- In an emergency, if no other water is available, snow can be melted for water. Bringing water to a rolling boil for one minute will kill most germs but won’t get rid of chemicals sometimes found in snow.
Car and Emergency Checklist
Minimize travel, but if travel is necessary, keep the following in your vehicle:
- Cell phone, portable charger, and extra batteries
- Windshield scraper
- Battery-powered radio with extra batteries
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- Snack food
- Extra hats, coats, and mittens
- Chains or rope
- Tire chains
- Canned compressed air with sealant for emergency tire repair
- Road salt and sand
- Booster cables
- Emergency flares
- Bright colored flag or help signs
- First aid kit
- Tool kit
- Road maps
- Waterproof matches and a can to melt snow for water
- Paper towels
Winter Storm Safety Checklist from the American Red Cross.