Winter Storms and Extreme Cold

Exposure to extreme cold during winter months can cause serious health problems. The information below provides Head Start staff, families, and the community with suggestions on preventing health and safety problems during extreme cold weather. It also provides tips on how best to respond to winter weather emergency situations.

Exposure to extreme cold during winter months can cause serious health problems. The information below provides Head Start staff, families, and the community with suggestions on preventing health and safety problems during extreme cold weather. It also provides tips on how best to respond to winter weather emergency situations.

Icicles on roofPreparation: Most places in the U.S. should plan for the possibility of extremely cold weather every winter. Winter storms can range from moderate snowfall to blinding blizzards. Often sleet, freezing rain, and ice are part of winter storms, which can knock out heat, electricity, and phone service. There are steps you can take in advance for greater wintertime safety in your program, home, and car.

Tips for Programs

To prepare for winter storms and extreme cold, programs should:

  • Determine and inform families of program procedures for delayed openings, closings, and early releases
  • Define indoor spaces for active play when it is too cold to play outside
  • Encourage families to dress their children warmly
  • Maintain supplies such as hats, gloves, and coats for children who come to the center without them
  • Prepare shelter-in-place procedures and materials in case children and staff must remain at the center for extended periods of time
  • Have available warm fluids and well-balanced meals to maintain body temperature and help stay warm

Emergency kit in trunk of carTips for Families

To prepare for a winter storm, families should do the following:

  • Listen to weather forecasts on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio or other local news channels for critical information from the National Weather Service (NWS). Be aware of changing weather conditions.
  • Check your emergency kit supplies. Winter items include:
    • Rock salt (or a more environmentally safe product) to melt ice on walkways
    • Sand or kitty litter to improve traction
    • Snow shovels and other snow removal equipment
    • Sufficient heating fuel. You may become isolated in your home and regular fuel sources may be cut off. Store a good supply of dry, seasoned wood for your fireplace or wood-burning stove
    • Adequate clothing and blankets to keep you warm
  • Have your chimney or flue inspected each year.
  • Install a smoke detector and a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector. Test the batteries each month, and replace them twice a year.
  • Weatherproof your home. Block air from coming in around windows and doors.
  • Bring your pets indoors during the winter
  • Make a Family Communications Plan. It is important to know how you will contact one another, how you will get back together, and what you will do in case of an emergency.
  • Refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Winter Weather Checklist to organize your planning for extreme cold, snow, and ice.

Transportation: If programs provide transportation services, it is important to store shovels and other emergency supplies in the vehicles in case they become stuck in a winter storm. Also, develop partnerships with local transportation companies to ensure safe transportation of children and staff to their homes.

Man shoveling car out from under snow.Prepare Your Vehicle

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 be sure to check the following:

  • Antifreeze
  • Battery
  • Brake fluid
  • Defroster
  • Emergency flashers
  • Exhaust
  • Brakes
  • Fuel
  • Heater ignition
  • Oil
  • Radiator
  • Tires (air pressure and wear)
  • Windshield wiper fluid (de-icing wintertime mixture)

During the winter, keep the gas tank near full to help avoid ice in the tank and fuel lines, as well as to add weight for better traction. If vehicles are not used regularly, be sure to start the engine every few days to warm it up.

Impact: During extreme cold and severe winter weather, children and adults should remain indoors, especially if there are high winds. Make any trips outside as brief as possible, and remember these tips to protect your health and safety:

  • Listen to weather forecasts on NOAA Weather Radio or other local news channels for critical information from the NWS. Be aware of changing weather conditions.
  • Watch for signs of frostbite. These include loss of feeling in and white or pale appearance of extremities such as fingers, toes, ear lobes, and the tip of the nose. If symptoms are seen, get immediate medical help.
  • Watch for signs of hypothermia. These include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, slurred speech, drowsiness, and apparent exhaustion. If symptoms of hypothermia are present, get the person to a warm location, remove wet clothing, warm the center of the body first, and give warm beverages if the person is conscious. Get medical help as soon as possible.
  • Conserve fuel by keeping the building a little cooler than normal while still meeting the needs of infants and children with special health needs.
  • Open kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing. Be sure to move any harmful cleaners and household chemicals up out of the reach of children. If the pipes freeze, remove any insulation and wrap pipes in rags. Completely open all faucets and pour hot water over the frozen pipes, starting where they are most exposed to the cold.

Toddler looking out window to a snow covered houseIndoor Safety during a Storm

  • Use fireplace, wood stoves, or other combustion heaters only if they are properly vented to the outside and do not leak flue gas into the indoor air space. Never use a charcoal or gas grill indoors—the fumes are deadly. Never leave lit candles unattended.
  • Keep as much heat as possible inside your home or center. Check the temperature in your home often during severely cold weather.
  • Leave all water taps slightly open so they drip continuously to avoid frozen and broken pipes.
  • Eat regular, well-balanced meals to help you stay warm and drink plenty of fluids.

Two children on a red plastic sled.Outdoor Safety during a Storm

  • Avoid overexertion. This can bring on a heart attack—a major cause of death in winter. If you must be active outdoors, stretch before going outside to warm muscles and work at a slower pace.
  • Dress warmly and stay dry. Wear a hat and mittens to avoid frostbite. A scarf will protect your face and lungs from extremely cold air.
  • Avoid walking on ice or getting wet. Wet clothing loses all of its insulating value and transmits heat quickly.
  • Notify friends and family where you will be before you go hiking, camping, or venture out into the snow.
  • Avoid traveling on ice-covered roads, overpasses, and bridges if at all possible.
  • If you are stranded, it is safest to stay in your car.

Relief:

  • Seek emergency health services and monitor any person affected by weather-related illness or injury.
  • Assess and service heating and electrical utilities if needed.
  • Go to a designated public shelter if your center or home loses power or heat during periods of extreme cold. Text SHELTER and your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (i.e., Shelter 12345).
  • Continue to protect yourself from frostbite and hypothermia by wearing warm, loose-fitting, lightweight clothing in several layers. Stay indoors, if possible.
  • Provide support to families who experience loss due to the storm.

Recovery:

  • Be aware of exhaustion. Don’t try to do too much at once. Set priorities and pace yourself. Get enough rest.
  • Drink plenty of clean water and eat well.
  • Wear sturdy work boots and gloves.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and clean water often when cleaning up debris.
  • Avoid travel until roads are safe, if at all possible.

Find more tips for staying safe and warm this winter:

Winter Storms and Extreme Cold. HHS/CDC and DHS/FEMA. 2014. English.

Last Reviewed: January 2014

Last Updated: December 9, 2015