The official first day of winter is still three weeks away, but weather patterns as of late aren’t minding the calendar. Winter weather is in full swing across much of the United States and as early snowfalls, intense storms, and other types of extreme winter weather—events that differ significantly from the average weather pattern—become more common, local health departments need to ensure they are taking all steps possible to prepare both themselves and their communities for any adverse situations that might arise.
The importance of winter weather preparedness was evident last week in parts of Buffalo, NY, where more than seven feet of snow fell; it shut down the city, prevented people from safely getting to and from work, and in some cases, even trapped people inside their homes and cars. Tracy Fricano Chalmers, Program Manager for the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness at the Erie County Department of Health said that in such situations, the most significant message local health departments can share is the importance of taking personal responsibility for one’s own preparedness. In severe events, situations might occur where even emergency responders have trouble accessing community members, and indeed, they did occur in Buffalo where many responders lived inside the snowbelt and were trapped in their own homes through the duration of the storm.
Local health departments should emphasize the basics: the importance of having personal preparedness kits, a family communications plan for extreme weather events, and agreements to check on elderly neighbors, all stocked and ready in advance of any storm. According to Ready.gov, winter storms can range from moderate snowfall over a few hours to blizzards that last several days, and many are accompanied by dangerously low temperatures, strong winds, icing, sleet, and freezing rain—so preparedness kits should be ready to handle all situations. Basic recommended items include: rock salt, sand, snow removal equipment, heating fuel, warm clothing and blankets, food, water, and some sort of communication device. Local health departments should also remind community members to keep their cell phones charged, their vehicles filled with gas, and their kits easily accessible.
Planning for people with disabilities, medical conditions, or who require medications is of significant importance during extreme winter weather events. In Grand Rapids, MI, where by Nov. 20 29 inches of snow had fallen—already a quarter of what the city received during the entire 2013-14 winter—the Kent County Health Department is in the process of developing the Snow Angels program, a collaboration with the local MRC and 211 Center to train residents in keeping sidewalks and bus stops clear of snow. Program development was prompted by last year’s heavy snowfalls, which forced people in wheelchairs to travel in the center of the street versus on the sidewalk.
Local health departments should work with their Health and Human Services Department and other local nonprofits to ensure that vulnerable populations are receiving the proper preparedness messaging during severe weather events. This includes encouraging them to fill prescriptions early, make plans to stay with family members, identify shelter locations and ways to get there, and even make plans to stay at care facilities if they require power-dependent medical equipment, such as a dialysis machine.
Garrett Simonsen, Regional Public Health Preparedness Coordinator and MRC Director for the Derry Public Health Network in New Hampshire, said that his local health department has seen a significant number of individuals with functional needs and power dependent medical equipment seeking overnight shelter during severe events. This has led the department to seek out increased training for staff and volunteers, as well as to partner with local utility providers who keep a registry of residents requiring power-dependent medical devices.
Communicating these preparedness strategies to community members is one of the biggest hurdles that local health departments face, especially in cities where frequent snowfall is common. However, regular winter weather preparedness communications serve as an important reminder for safety, especially as first snowfalls more frequently are occurring in mid-autumn.
A number of different strategies have proven successful for local health departments, including regular, in-person outreach events throughout the year, writing press releases and fact sheets, posting updates to websites, and sharing information over social media. Kent County found success by hosting short winter weather preparedness segments on local television and news radio channels; Derry produced informational videos through collaboration with a local emergency room to discuss winter weather-related injuries such as hypothermia and snow blower lacerations; and Erie County actually took advantage of the captive audience the recent storm provided and targeted residents through social media and television. Such tools were especially useful during the storm, as power outages were minimal.
Twitter in particular proved to be an effective communications tool because not only was Erie County able to push information out, but they were able to identify, monitor, and track unfolding situations that might require emergency responder assistance.
And though extreme winter weather events are undoubtedly exhausting and dangerous for local health departments and their communities, the experiences have provided lessons learned and helped improve functions during severe events. The importance of developing partnerships with other organizations is continually highlighted: Kent County especially encourages local health departments to work with local epidemiologists who do surveillance on issues such as frostbite or carbon monoxide poisoning, to help identify the weather-related issues that most commonly affect a specific community and how to mitigate them.
In Erie County, the experiences have also helped highlight the types of winter weather preparedness messages communities need most. Chalmers emphasized that local health departments first and foremost should be promoting personal responsibility in their messaging: not only the need to have a preparedness kit and plan, but the need to heed warnings to stay home and off roads. Additionally, the experience shed light on how the health department can safely operate during a severe storm when many staff members might be unable to make it to work. During the snowstorm, those who lived outside the affected areas ended up working extremely long hours and had to organize a system of taking breaks for rest and healthy eating. Their experience serves as a reminder to local health departments that not only are they serving their communities during severe weather events, but that they are a part of the community as well.
For more extreme winter weather preparedness tips, visit:
- NACCHO Winter Weather Toolbox
- Winter Storms & Extreme Cold (Ready.gov)
- Winter Weather Emergency Preparedness and Response (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Winter Safety (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
- Winter Weather Social Media Toolkit (Federal Emergency Management Administration)