PITTSBURGH – The Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services, Department of Human Services and Health Department today urged residents to take extra precautions during the next four days with continued frigid temperatures and snow in the forecast. Officials also provided a number of recommendations and safety tips to help residents prepare for and deal with the extremely cold weather.
Preparing Your Family & Home for Severe Winter Weather
The Department of Emergency Services offers the following tips to protect yourself and family from the dangers of severe winter weather and resulting impacts, such as power outages and loss of heat:
- Prepare an emergency supply kit with non-perishable food, water, a battery-powered radio, flashlight and batteries, clothing and blankets, and an adequate supply of medications.
- Have a snow shovel and other snow removal equipment, rock salt for melting ice on steps and walkways, and sand to improve motor vehicle traction.
- Develop a family emergency plan so everyone knows how to contact one another. If possible, carry cell phones. Designate locations where your family will meet, both in and outside your immediate neighborhood. It may be easier to make a long-distance call than to call across town, so an out-of-town contact may be better able to communicate with separated family members. Have a plan to help elderly or disabled friends, neighbors or employees.
- Inquire about emergency plans at places where your family spends time, such as work, daycare and school. If no plans exist, consider volunteering to help create one.
- Make sure your home is well insulated and that you have weather stripping around doors and windowsills to keep warm air inside. Insulate water pipes with insulation or newspapers and plastic and allow faucets to drip a little during extremely cold weather to avoid frozen pipes. Shut off water valves if you will be away from home for an extended period.
- Keep fire extinguishers in your house, and make sure everyone knows where they are stored and how to use them. House fires pose a risk as more people turn to alternate heating sources without taking the necessary safety precautions.
- Keep your vehicle’s gas tank full in case you have to leave home, and make sure it’s in good operating condition by checking antifreeze and oil levels, battery and ignition system, tires, brakes, exhaust system, heater/defroster, thermostat, headlights, brake lights, flashing hazard lights, windshield wipers and washer fluid levels.
- Familiarize yourself with terms used to identify winter weather: freezing rain creates a coating of ice on roads, walkways and bridge surfaces; sleet is rain that turns to ice pellets before reaching the ground and also causes roads to freeze and become slippery; winter weather advisory means cold, ice and snow are expected; winter storm warning means severe weather conditions have begun or will begin very soon: blizzard warning means heavy snow and strong winds will produce blinding snow, near zero visibility, deep drifts and life-threatening wind chill.
- Listen to NOAA weather radio, local radio and television stations, or cable stations, such as the Weather Channel, for weather updates and emergency information.
- When a weather watch, warning or advisory is issued, avoid unnecessary travel, and listen to radio and television for updates.
- If you must travel, carry necessary medications and an emergency supply kit with blankets, extra jackets, hats and gloves. Let someone know your destination, route and expected arrive time so help can be sent if your vehicle gets stuck or breaks down. If possible, carry a cell phone. If the weather is too severe to continue driving and there is shelter nearby, stay bundled up in your vehicle until help arrives.
- When confined to home during severe winter weather, eat regularly, drink fluids, but avoid caffeine/alcohol. To conserve energy and keep occupied areas warm, close off heat to unused rooms.
- Listen to instructions given by local emergency management officials. For information on how to plan and prepare for winter weather and extreme cold, as well as what to do during and afterward visit websites of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, NOAA Watch, Ready.gov or the American Red Cross.
Preventing Home Heating Fires
The Department of Emergency Services also reminds residents that half of all home heating fires occur in December, January and February. Follow these safety tips to keep your home safe:
- Keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from heating equipment, such as furnaces, fireplaces, wood stoves, or portable space heaters.
- Have a three-foot “kid-free zone” around open fires and space heaters.
- Never use your oven to heat your home.
- Have a qualified professional install stationary space heating equipment, water heaters or central heating equipment according to the local codes and manufacturer’s instructions.
- Have heating equipment and chimneys cleaned and inspected every year by a qualified professional.
- Turn portable heaters off when leaving the room or going to bed.
- Always use the right kind of fuel, specified by the manufacturer, for fuel burning space heaters.
- Make sure the fireplace has a sturdy screen to stop sparks from flying into the room. Ashes should be cool before putting them in a metal container. Keep the container a safe distance away from your home.
- Test smoke alarms monthly.
For additional information on preventing household fires during winter months, visit the National Fire Protection Association’s “Put a Freeze on Winter Fires” website.
Assisting Older Neighbors During Severe Weather
The Department of Human Services (DHS) encourages all county residents to check on older neighbors to make sure they are safe during periods of severe weather. Here are some tips and guidelines:
- Make sure seniors have a list of emergency telephone numbers that includes neighbors and family members who can help, if needed.
- Check to see the furnace is working if the house feels cold. Become alert to dangerous methods of heating a room, such as open flames or ovens.
- Ensure that walkways and steps leading to their homes are cleared and that there is food and water in the house.
- Go back later or the next day, if at all possible, to make sure everything is still alright. Remove your coat and stay at least 15 minutes. This is a great chance to share a cup of coffee, verify the pipes are not frozen, and check on pets.
- Be particularly mindful of older neighbors during a power outage. Lack of electrical power not only presents dangers associated with lack of heat, but also risks associated with non-functioning vital medical equipment, such as oxygen systems, emergency lighting, stair glides and medication timers. If you cannot contact someone you believe is in the house, contact your local police or emergency services.
When weather circumstances dictate, the DHS Area Agency on Aging and its contracted providers contact frail, isolated and high-risk consumers who are registered for care management. Care managers visit those at highest risk and ensure each home is well-heated and has enough food, water and medication to last for several days. Care managers also respond to emergency needs as they arise.
The Area Agency on Aging has already provided more than 2,400 “Snowy Weather Boxes” to at-risk older adults who are registered with the agency and often live alone. The boxes include toilet paper, non-skid slipper socks, hand sanitizer, flashlight and batteries, peanut butter, crackers, tuna, fruit, juice, bottled water, and other shelf-stable meals and drinks.
Information about programs and services for older adults is available by calling SeniorLine at 412-350-5460 (TDD/TTY 412-350-2727), sending an email to SeniorLine@alleghenycounty.us, or visiting the DHS Older Adults website at www.alleghenycounty.us/dhs/olderadults.aspx.
Guarding Against Frostbite & Hypothermia
The Allegheny County Health Department urges residents to take precautions to guard against frostbite and hypothermia, the dangerous and sometimes fatal lowering of body temperature.
The wind chill index, which takes into account the combined effect of wind speed and air temperature, can be used to indicate the risk of frostbite to exposed skin. Frostbite can occur within 30 minutes at a wind chill temperature of -19 degrees, within 10 minutes at -33 degrees, and within 5 minutes at -48 degrees.
Health officials recommend the following safety measures:
- Dress warmly in loose-fitting layers of clothing. Wear a hat, scarf, boots, gloves or mittens, and ear muffs or a head band. You can lose as much as 50 percent of your body's heat through the head, so it is important to always wear a warm hat.
- Cover as much skin as possible to guard against frostbite. The nose, cheeks, ears, fingers and toes are most vulnerable. Wind and precipitation raise the risk of frostbite.
- It is especially important for adults to dress children appropriately if they are going to be outside in cold weather. If they cannot be dressed appropriately, do not send children outside in cold weather.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages because they cause the body to lose heat more rapidly. Instead, drink warm, sweet beverages, broth or soup to maintain body temperature.
- If you suspect frostbite, call for emergency medical assistance. In the meantime, cover the frozen area to protect it from further injury and provide extra clothing or blankets. Bring the victim indoors, if possible, and provide something warm and non-alcoholic to drink. Re-warm the frozen area by immersing it in warm, not hot, water.
- If you suspect hypothermia, which occurs when someone’s body temperature drops below 95 degrees and causes shivering, confusion, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness, call for emergency medical assistance. In the meantime, bring the victim into a warm room. Remove wet or frozen clothing. Place the victim in warm blankets or a tub of warm, not hot, water. If the victim is conscious, give him or her non-alcoholic hot liquids.
- Hypothermia can occur indoors. If you cannot maintain a house temperature of 68 degrees, dress warmly and use blankets and hats to keep warm, especially for infants, the elderly and the chronically ill.
Cold weather health tips may be obtained by calling the Allegheny County Health Department at 412-687-ACHD (2243) or visiting www.achd.net.
Providing Shelter & Services to People Who Are Street Homeless
The Department of Human Services Office of Community Services and Pittsburgh Mercy Health System’s Operation Safety Net® are again operating the Severe Weather Emergency Shelter (SWES) for the safety of people who are street homeless.
The shelter is located in the Smithfield United Church of Christ at 620 Smithfield Street in Downtown Pittsburgh. It provides temporary, overnight accommodations, social services and protection from frigid temperatures to people who typically do not use other existing shelters during severe winter weather.
From now through March 15, the SWES will operate from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. when the temperature drops to 25 degrees or below and when dangerous winter weather exists or is predicted by the National Weather Service. Additional nights will be added, as needed. To find out if the SWES is activated on any given evening, call 412-779-1329.
Operation Safety Net coordinates employees and volunteers to staff the shelter and procures all necessary supplies, including sleeping bags, linens, winter apparel and food. Allegheny County Police provide security each night the shelter is activated.
Case managers help individuals who come to the shelter access needed services, secure benefits, and find permanent housing. In the past five years, Operation Safety Net has successfully connected more than 850 of the individuals it serves to housing.
During the winter of 2011-2012, the SWES operated 31 nights, down from a record 64 nights during the winter of 2010-2011. During the 31 nights it was open, the shelter served an average of 65 people each night. Overall, 409 individuals benefited from the shelter’s activation – 43 were age 26 or younger, and 29 were age 64 or older. Fifty of the individuals were women, and 48 of the individuals were veterans.
The SWES is made possible by funding from DHS, the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development, Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, Federal Emergency Management Agency, City of Pittsburgh Department of Economic Development, and Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Monetary donations are welcome and may be made at www.pmhs.org. To donate by phone, contact PMHS Development Executive Director Connie Murray at 724-934-3537. For more information about the SWES, contact Operation Safety Net Program Manager Stephanie Chiappini at 412-246-2980.
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