Winter Weather Preparedness 101: Are You Ready?

Taking the following precautions will help you and your campus community stay safe during inclement winter weather.

Winter Weather Preparedness 101: Are You Ready?

Image via Adobe, by ville

It’s hard to believe that after the grueling, record-setting summer of extreme temperatures, drought, wildfires, glacial melt, tropical systems (into California!), and floods that most of us just experienced that we could utter the famous words, “Winter is coming.” The phrase (and memes), made famous by the show Game of Thrones is often analogous to saying, “Something bad is going to happen.” For purposes of this article, all the meanings, literal and figurative, are on the table.

Like most aspects of our climate in recent years, winter is no exception for bringing some notable extremes. While most of the traditionally cold and snowy regions of our country have experienced generally shorter and milder winters, it is the discreet extreme events that have garnered the most notoriety.

Winter Weather Emergencies Can Happen Anywhere

There have been several cases in recent years where winter weather has occurred in places that it usually does not or winter-accustomed locations have incurred extreme events that far surpass their experience and capabilities.

  • Southern California (February 2023) From feet of snow in the mountains to a dusting on the beaches of Los Angeles and San Diego Counties.
  • Buffalo, NY (December 2022) An intense lake-effect band buried this winter weather bastion with 51.9 inches of snow over 5 days, two feet in one day. Combined with winds and power outages, at least 44 people lost their lives.
  • North American Winter Storm (December 2022) – This is the same storm system that set up Buffalo’s apocalyptic lake-effect event. Elsewhere, blizzard conditions covered a wide swath from the Midwest to New England. The unprecedented scope of this storm is estimated to have affected 60% of Americans in one way or another. Across the U.S. and Canada, 91 people died.
  • Texas (February 2021) – Three successive winter storms, combined with widespread power outages, resulted in 246 deaths. Almost two-thirds died of hypothermia. Freezing rain resulted in 133 vehicles being involved in a crash on I-35W near Fort Worth, TX, resulting in 65 hospitalizations and 6 fatalities.
  • “Snowmageddon” (February 2010) – The storm wreaked havoc across the country, icing over roads in New Mexico and shutting down the federal government in DC. 41 died.
  • “Snowzilla” (January 2016) – Paralyzed the entire East Coast, leaving hundreds of thousands without power. Snow fell in areas as far south as Georgia, Alabama, and even the Florida Panhandle. With intense snowfall, hail, wind gusts, and whiteout conditions, it was unsafe to travel even short distances. In all, 55 people lost their lives. The snow reached a maximum height of 42 inches in Glengary, W.V.

If we have learned anything in the last decade, it is that virtually nowhere in the United States or Canada is immune from some form of winter weather. Winter weather impacts have expanded in geographic scope and some individual events have become more severe.

“Winter weather” is a rather broad term that encompasses everything from cold temperatures, freezing precipitation, winds, and a combination of all of the above that reduces visibility and makes things slippery.

Cold Temperatures

We’ve learned in science class that 32°F / 0°C is the freezing point of water.  Generally speaking (there are always exceptions), water at or below this temperature will change from a liquid to some form of a solid. In the next section, we’ll go into deeper detail about what shape these solids can appear in, especially as they fall from the sky. For now, let’s focus on the temperatures themselves.

Much to many a Southerner’s dismay, people do live and have thrived in cold climates for centuries. Just because it gets cold, it does not mean everyone just freezes to death. Much like man invented air conditioners for heat and humidity, humans have invented many means to shelter themselves from the cold and wintry precipitation and keep themselves warm.

There are two main ways to protect oneself from the cold:

  • Insulation – from the construction of buildings to the layers of clothing on one’s back, blocking the cold out and keeping the heat in is critical.
  • Heating Source – an external heating mechanism (besides your body). Fire, the greatest discovery of all humankind, is one of those options (e.g. fireplace, wood stove). Heating systems (the “H” in HVAC) are another.

It is when one or both of these two ingredients are absent or fail in some way that the cold goes from manageable to threatening. Some examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Insufficient Insulation in Structures – Many structures leak like sieves. In the summer, we call that a nice draft. We intentionally open doors and windows to make the holes in our buildings bigger. In winter, the cold finds every crack and crevice possible to make its way into a building, while at the same time letting every degree of heat out.
  • Insufficient Insulation in Clothing – Simply put, when outdoors, you bare the full brunt of what the cold has to offer. One must be dressed appropriately for the conditions to maintain core body temperature and protect exposed skin. Clothing that becomes wet, by precipitation or sweat, helps evaporate heat away from the body.
  • Insufficient Heating Source(s) – Warmer climates focus more on air conditioning and/or swamp coolers for cooling but do not have adequate heating capacity to keep a whole structure safe and comfortable. OSHA recommends 68 – 74 degrees for a routine work environment without accommodations. Many people, homeowners in particular, turn to space heaters to supplement the heating in their homes (and under their work desks).

Cold Temperature-Related Injuries and Illness

Cold temperatures have a direct impact on us as humans, even on bright sunny days. Whether indoors or outdoors, keeping our bodies warm and protected is key. The primary cold temperature-related medical issues are:

  • Hypothermia – Per the CDC, hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures. When this happens, your body begins to lose heat faster than it’s produced. Lengthy exposures will eventually use up your body’s stored energy, which leads to lower body temperature. Body temperature that is too low affects the brain, making the victim unable to think clearly or move well. This makes hypothermia especially dangerous because a person may not know that it’s happening and won’t be able to do anything about it.
  • Frostbite – Frostbite is a type of injury caused by freezing. It leads to a loss of feeling and color in the areas it affects, usually extremities such as the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation (removing the affected body part).

These cold-related medical concerns most often occur outdoors, where one is exposed to the full onslaught of the temperatures, precipitation, and wind. However, many injuries and fatalities occur indoors as well when one is unable to protect themselves from the cold with proper insulation or external heat. Both can come on slowly to where the victim does not notice they are succumbing to a problem.

Freezing Precipitation and Icy Surfaces

Let’s start with freezing precipitation, which is the most common factor that comes to mind when people think of a winter storm. Freezing precipitation comes in the following forms:

  • Snow forms when moisture in the upper atmosphere freezes and falls to the ground through the air that stays below freezing the whole time, maintaining its beautiful shape. Just as no two snowflakes are alike, snow comes in varying levels of moisture, called the liquid-to-snow ratio. A low liquid-to-snow ratio, when temperatures are just below freezing, yields wetter, slushier, heavier, and more slippery snow. A high liquid-to-snow ratio, when temperatures are very low, yields lighter, fluffier snow skiers affectionally call “powder.” Powder snow is less slippery, but it flies around easier, causing drifting and reducing visibility.
  • Sleet begins it’s life as a snowflake, but somewhere along its journey, encounters air above freezing that allows it to melt somewhat. Then it re-enters the freezing air, resolidifies, and lands on the ground more like a pellet or BB. Sleet can accumulate, and enough of it can cause slick conditions.
  • Graupel follows a similar journey as sleet, starting as snow, but rather than going through a layer of warm air and melting, it goes through a layer of supercooled water droplets that latch onto the snowflake, making for a softer, crunchier, crushable pellet when it reaches the ground.
  • Hail, which resembles sleet, is formed differently and is most associated with thunderstorms, not winter storms. In some cases, such as more southern parts of a storm, it is possible to have both thunderstorms and hail, followed closely by sleet and graupel. It’s really hard to tell the difference sometimes.
  • Freezing rain is perhaps the most sneaky and most threatening. In this case, a raindrop falls through above-freezing air, until it lands at ground level still as a liquid raindrop. The problem here is that there is a very thin layer of freezing air right at the surface, which causes surfaces (walkways, roadways, tree branches, power lines, etc.) to form ice from the liquid rain that is falling. As each drop of water lands, it freezes, and the ice grows thicker (or “accretes”) on the surfaces. It doesn’t take that much accretion on untreated surfaces before your surface turns into an ice skating rink. A quarter-inch or more of ice accretion starts bringing down tree branches and power lines.

To make things worse, if you are located in the zone for “mixed precipitation” (any combination of snow, sleet, graupel, or freezing rain), you don’t know what you will end up with, which makes it harder to prepare appropriately.

“Icy conditions” can also occur from the freezing of wet surfaces, such as around water fountains or irrigation systems that leak or are left on during the freezing event. Sometimes we can experience refreeze where things melt in the warmth and sunlight of the day, but do not evaporate enough and the residual fluid refreezes into ice. This is often called “black ice” because, unlike freezing precipitation that has air entrained into it, giving it a white look, still water freezing solid is crystal clear and looks black at night in the headlights, just like asphalt.

Accidents, Injuries, and Illnesses from Slippery Surfaces

While cold temperatures unto themselves can be a factor in injury or illness, they conspire with the wintry precipitation to make life one big slip-and-slide. Slippery surfaces are the number one contributor to winter-related injuries.

Slips and Falls

As we described, frozen precipitation can take many shapes and forms. Not all result in slippery conditions. A nice cold, fluffy snow crunches under your feet from the sound of the friction of it rubbing against each other and your footwear. That’s why you don’t see people enjoying a nice slide down a hillside with just their feet. They need some form of ski, board, or sled to help. The following can help reduce the number of slip and falls on your campus:

  • Appropriate footwear: The wrong choice of footwear (dress shoes, heels, flats, etc.) artificially creates a smooth surface that allows you to slide more easily. Wearing the right footwear to maximize grip and reduce slipping is critical. Most people in wintry climates will wear snow boots when outdoors, and then change into something more comfortable once they get inside.
  • Walk like a penguin: It seems a little silly, but this one phrase is probably responsible for reducing slips and falls at many organizations. The key point is that when your footwear just doesn’t cut it on a slippery surface, you walk like a penguin. To do so you: Keep your toes pointed out, keep your knees loose, keep your hands outside of your pockets, take short steps, and walk slowly.
  • Walking surface treatments: Shoveling, plowing, and sweeping to remove the frozen materials, combined with sanding, salting, brining, or other chemical treatments to help aid in melting, are ways the institution can help mitigate slippery surfaces. However, do know that generally speaking, few options really work below 10°F / -12°C.

Vehicle Excursions and Collisions

Taking your vehicle on the road during slippery conditions can be extremely dangerous if you, your vehicle, and the roadway are not prepared to work together as a team. I specifically chose the word “excursion” because, if you’re lucky, if you take your vehicle for a slide, you hope you don’t hit anyone or anything else in the process.  Landing in a ditch will bruise your ego and cause a few dents, but it is far better than colliding. Collisions can take all forms, from going off the road and hitting a tree, hitting a mailbox (I’ve lost count), hitting another vehicle, guardrail, sign, road structure, or worse, a person.

While I am tempted to write about how to safely drive in winter weather, that could be a whole other article unto itself. Bottom line, if you are not prepared (knowledge, skills, and abilities), your vehicle is not prepared (tires, all-wheel drive, etc.), the roadway is not mitigated (plowed, salted, sanded, etc.), or the weather is exceeding mitigation efforts (snow falling at rates the plows can’t keep up with, wind blowing snow to create whiteout conditions, road treatments aren’t working, etc.),  then simply, don’t risk it: stay off the roads and wait it out.

Winter Extremes

Even some of the most winter-accustomed communities can be subjected to extreme winter conditions. When do winter storms become “severe” or “extreme?”

  • Blizzards: A often misused and misunderstood term, a blizzard is the combination of snow and high winds that create “whiteout” conditions to where you cannot see the road in front of you. The wind is a critical ingredient. It blows around the falling snow in such a way that visibility is severely reduced. “Ground blizzards” can occur when high winds blow previously fallen, light, fluffy snow, sometimes with the sun out!   
  • Winter storms: While the criteria for a Winter Storm Warning varies throughout the country, the values of snowfall expected generally exceed what the region is acclimated to. Nine to 15 inches of snow in 24 hours is not crippling in Upstate New York, but it sure does slow things down. While there is a tendency to focus on snowfall totals, a more critical measure is the snowfall rate (how much snow is falling per hour). Most winter-hardened communities can handle up to 1 inch of snow per hour with their snow removal programs.  It’s when the snow falls at rates of 1.5 – 2 – 3 – 4 inches per hour that the snow plows simply cannot keep up and vehicles become stuck. Once a roadway is full of stuck vehicles, the plows become worthless.
  • Ice storms: When freezing rain accretes (grows) to ¼-inch or bigger, trees and power lines start to succumb to the weight of the ice. If wind is added, the stress on lines is even worse. Ice accretion of 1 inch or greater results in widespread damage that often requires weeks to recover.

When to Take Protective Actions

While it may seem like an oversimplification, the decision to take protective actions as a school, college, or healthcare facility as a result of winter weather comes down to, “Can our constituents get to, operate on, and return home from, our campus safely?” To break it down a little further:

  • Can our constituents (students, faculty, administrators, employees) get to campus safely without a significant risk of slipping, falling, running off the road, colliding with others, getting stranded, or succumbing to injury or illness given the level of acclimation to the conditions and the mitigating measures in place?
  • Are there core critical personnel that must be on campus no matter what (e.g., doctors, nurses, facilities, grounds, public safety)? If yes, can you make special accommodations to enhance their safety by arriving early, leaving late, or staying on or near campus for the duration of the event?
  • Can we, as an organization, adequately mitigate the risks from door to door? Of course not. We have no control over what road conditions are like off campus.
  • Are our facilities adequate to maintain appropriate working temperatures?
  • Are there any potential aggravating factors such as infrastructure failure, such as power outages?

If there is any doubt, the simple answer is to cancel or curtail activities to reduce your constituent’s need to travel, whether on foot or by vehicle. Move appropriate activities into an online remote work environment.

Dave Bujak, CEM® PMP®, has previously served as emergency manager for Florida State University, the University of Rochester, UR Medicine, and Akron Children’s Hospital. He is an instructor and subject matter expert for “Winter Weather Awareness” (AWR-331) offered by the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center (NDPTC). 

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