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Weather the Winter Safely

Winter Safety Tips for Your Home and Family

We're never ready for it. Even if we think we're prepared, it still comes as a surprise. The icy winds, the snow, the driving rains and frigid temperatures of that first winter storm still have the power to shock us, as if we had no idea the crisp days of autumn were ever going to end.

Mother Nature has a way of reminding us that no matter how technologically advanced we become, we are not immune to her fury. So when winter comes roaring in there are a few things we need to keep in mind to ensure the safety of ourselves and our loved ones.

Preparedness is Key
Karen Lovett of Nauvoo, Ala., knows just how furious Mother Nature can become. With the tornados of last fall and the ice storms of the last few years, she has learned how important it is to be prepared.

"Last winter, we had tornados one week and ice storms the next," says Lovett. "With such rapid changes in storm fronts, it is very difficult to know what to plan for."

With only electric heat, Lovett has learned to keep the right supplies on hand. "Winter storms in Alabama are mostly ice or freezing rain," says Lovett. "When the storm starts, it will be rain, and as the temperatures drop, the trees start bowing and the power lines start snapping. I have stocked up on extra blankets. I have at least four blankets for each bed we have. Sweat suits and thick jackets are also hidden somewhere in the back of our closets."

The Lovetts have learned the hard way that they need to be prepared for winter storms, but many families neglect to do so.

"Many of the fires and cold weather-related emergencies that occur during this time of the year can be avoided," says Connie Harvey, the American Red Cross National Health and Safety expert. "As always with emergencies such as these, prevention and preparedness are key."

Preparedness includes readying your home for a winter storm, having an emergency kit on hand, knowing how to avoid hypothermia, checking on elderly neighbors and watching out for your pets' safety.

Avoiding Illness
"The temperature outside does not have to be below freezing for someone to get a cold weather-related illness such as frostbite or hypothermia," says Harvey. "The likelihood of injury or illness depends on factors such as physical activity, clothing, wind, humidity, working and living conditions, and a person's age and state of health.

Harvey believes that the very young and the very old are particularly vulnerable and that dressing appropriately is the best prevention. She suggests dressing in layers and wearing clothes made of tightly-woven fabric, such as wool or polypropylene, as they help trap warm air against your body.

Wearing a hat is also important, preferably one that covers the ears, as most of the body's heat is lost through the head. Waterproof, insulated boots are also key in avoiding hypothermia or frostbite by keeping the feet warm and dry.

If you or someone you know gets wet, chilled or overexerts themselves while outside, get them inside as soon as possible. "Get out of wet clothes immediately, and warm the core body temperature with a blanket or warm fluids like hot cider or soup," says Harvey. "Know the symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite and seek medical attention if conditions are present."

Symptoms of hypothermia include confusion, dizziness, exhaustion and severe shivering. Warning signs of frostbite include gray, white or yellow skin discoloration.

Keeping an Eye on the Elderly
Harvey suggests checking on elderly neighbors or parents regularly. "If possible, invite them to your home to be sure that they have what they need and are adequately warm, clothed and fed," she says.

Prevent falls and injuries by making sure the walkways and driveways around the homes of your elderly neighbors are kept clear and dry in bad weather. Another thing to remember is that during times of crisis, an elderly person may forget to take their medication and may appreciate an extra reminder.

Preparing the Home
Your home needs to be prepared for the winter as well. This includes making sure it is properly insulated, installing storm windows to conserve heat and energy, wrapping exposed pipes in insulation or layers of old newspapers (wrap the newspapers in plastic to keep moisture out) and keeping an emergency kit on hand in case you lose electricity.

It's also a good idea to have an alternative heating source such as a portable space heater or kerosene heater. "Check with your local fire department on the legality of using kerosene heaters in your community," says Harvey. "Fire hazards are greatly increased in the winter because alternate heating sources are used without following proper safety precautions."

Because winter storms can often knock out power, the American Red Cross suggests being prepared for an outage before one occurs. Keep essential supplies in one place in your home – someplace easy to reach if the lights go out. An essential supply kit should include: flashlights, batteries, a portable radio, at least 1 gallon of water and a small supply of food. Harvey also cautions against using candles during power outages due to the extreme risk of fire.

Other tips in the event of a power outage include:

  • Avoid opening the refrigerator and freezer.
  • Do not run a generator inside a home or garage.
  • If you use a generator, connect the equipment you want to power directly to the outlets on the generator. Do not connect a generator to a home's electrical system.
  • If you have a telephone system at home that requires electricity to work (such as a cordless phone or answering machine), plan for alternate communication, such as a standard telephone handset, cellular telephone, radio or pager.
  • Keep your car fuel tank at least half full because gas stations rely on electricity to power their pumps.
  • Turn off or disconnect any appliances, equipment or electronics you were using when the power went out. When power comes back on, it may come back with momentary "surges" or "spikes" that can damage equipment such as computers and motors in appliances like the refrigerator, washer or furnace.

Protecting Our Furry Friends
Jeff Werber, veterinarian and founder of Jeffwerberpets Inc, a pet products company, urges people not to forget their pet's safety during the winter months either.

"Most pets are able to handle cold weather fairly well and do not generally have problems until temperatures drop below freezing," says Werber. "For those living in areas where freezing temperatures are common, try to keep pets indoors whenever possible."

Werber believes the most dangerous aspect of winter weather for pets is wind. "Protecting pets from the wind is very important," he says. "While they should be fine for short periods of time, lengthy exposure to strong winds can cause animals to become dangerously chilled."

Smaller breeds are much more susceptible to winter weather. Those silly sweaters aren't just a fashion statement, but a necessary accessory for small dogs.

Also, remember that winter weather can have damaging effects on paws. Many put salt on the ground to help melt snow and clear roads and walkways, and this can damage the pads of the paws. There are special booties available at pet stores that can be worn to protect paws, but if you don't use these items, wash and dry your pet's paws following walks or trips outside when you notice that salt is present.

Winter storms don't have to mean winter discomfort. By being prepared for them ahead of time, you can circumvent most problems and wait out the storm with your family in comfort and safety.

Connie Harvey, the American Red Cross National Health and Safety expert, offers the following additional tips to help keep families safe this season:

  • Dress appropriately before going outdoors.
  • Recognize the symptoms of cold weather illnesses such as hypothermia and frostbite.
  • Inspect fireplaces and wood stoves. Have your chimney connections and flues inspected by a professional and cleaned if necessary prior to the start of the heating season.
  • Be sure your car is prepared. "Before hitting the road, let someone know your route, final destination and expected arrival time," says Harvey. It is also a good idea to have a disaster supplies kit for the car that includes: a flashlight with fresh batteries, battery-powered radio and extra batteries, blankets or sleeping bags, booster cables, a fire extinguisher (5-pound, A-B-C type), bottled water and non-perishable high-energy foods (granola bars, raisins and peanut butter), compass, road maps, shovel, tire repair kit and pump, flares, extra clothing, a bag of sand or cat litter (for tire traction), tow rope, knife and first aid kit with a manual.
  • Enroll in a first aid, CPR and AED course by contacting your local American Red Cross.

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