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Knowledge Center

10 Potential Emergencies

In this section you will find:

  • General information about winter storms.
  • What you should know about winter storm terms.
  • How to prepare for a winter storm emergency, including:
    • General guidelines.
    • What to do if you are driving.
    • What to do if you are outdoors.


The National Weather Service refers to winter storms as the "Deceptive Killers" because most deaths are indirectly related to the storm. People are injured or killed in traffic accidents on icy roads, or suffer from hypothermia due to prolonged exposure to the cold. Another major danger associated with winter storms is their ability to knock out heat, power and communications, sometimes for days at a time. On this page you will find information about how to prepare for winter weather before it strikes.


Winter storms include a variety of weather, including snow or subfreezing temperatures, strong winds and even ice or heavy rain storms. It's important to understand the basic winter weather terminology so you will know what the danger is and how to respond appropriately:

Winter Storm Watch A winter storm is possible in your area. Tune in to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio, or television for more information.
Winter Storm Warning A winter storm is occurring or will soon occur in your area.
Blizzard WarningSustained winds or frequent gusts to 35 miles per hour or greater and considerable amounts of falling or blowing snow (reducing visibility to less than a quarter mile) are expected to prevail for a period of three hours or longer.
Frost/Freeze WarningBelow freezing temperatures are expected.
Freezing RainRain that freezes when it hits the ground, creating a coating of ice on roads, walkways, trees, and power lines.
SleetRain that turns to ice pellets before reaching the ground. Sleet also causes moisture on roads to freeze and become slippery.
FlurriesLight snow falling for short durations. No accumulation or light dusting is all that is expected.
ShowersSnow falling at varying intensities for brief periods of time. Some accumulation is possible.
SquallsBrief, intense snow showers accompanied by strong, gusty winds. Accumulation may be significant.
Blowing SnowWind-driven snow that reduces visibility and causes significant drifting. Blowing snow may be snow that is falling and/or loose snow on the ground picked up by the wind.
BlizzardWinds over 35 mph with snow and blowing snow reducing visibility to near zero.


General Guidelines:

  • Get an emergency supply kit that includes enough provisions for you and your family to live on for a minimum of three days.
  • Check and update your family's emergency supply kit before winter approaches and add the following supplies in preparation for winter weather:
    • Rock salt to melt ice on walkways.
    • Sand to improve traction.
    • Snow shovels and other snow removal equipment.
    • Adequate clothing and blankets to keep you and your family warm.
  • Make an emergency plan for you and your family.
  • Listen to your radio, television, or NOAA Weather Radio for weather reports and emergency information.
  • Make sure your home is well insulated and that you have weather stripping around your doors and windowsills to keep the warm air inside.
  • If you have no heat, close off unneeded rooms, stuff towels or rags in the cracks under doors and cover windows at night.
  • Cover pipes with insulation or newspapers and plastic. Allow faucets to drip a little during cold weather to avoid freezing.
  • Learn how to shut off water valves in case a pipe bursts. If the pipes freeze, remove any insulation or layers of newspapers and wrap pipes in rags.
  • Completely open all faucets and pour hot water over the pipes, starting where they were most exposed to the cold (or where the cold was most likely to penetrate).
  • Use extreme caution when using alternative heating sources. Refuel kerosene heaters outside and keep them at least three feet from flammable objects. Also, when using kerosene heaters be sure to maintain ventilation to avoid build-up of toxic fumes.  See Winter Heating Safety Tips for more information.
  • Wear layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing. Several layers of lightweight clothing will keep you warmer than a single heavy coat. Wear gloves (or mittens) and a hat to help prevent loss of body heat.

If You Are Driving:

  • Avoid driving during winter storms.  If you must drive:
    • Stay on main roads, avoiding back road shortcuts.
    • Try to only travel during the day.
  • Plan ahead for winter traveling.  Be sure to let someone know where you are going, along with your primary and alternate routes.
  • Prepare your vehicle for winter by checking (or having a mechanic check):
    • Antifreeze levels
    • Battery and ignition system
    • Brakes (wear and fluid level)
    • Exhaust system (leaks, crimped pipes, etc.)
    • Fuel and air filters
    • Heater and defroster
    • Lights and flashing hazard lights
    • Oil
    • Thermostat
    • Tires (tread and air levels)
    • Windshield wipers and wiper fluid
  • If you get trapped in your car during a blizzard:
    • Pull off the highway. Turn on hazard lights and hang a distress flag from the radio antenna or window.
    • Remain in your vehicle where rescuers are most likely to find you. Do not set out on foot during a blizzard unless you can see a building close by where you know you can take shelter. If you do leave the vehicle, use extra caution because distances are distorted by blowing snow.
    • Run the engine and heater about 10 minutes each hour to keep warm. When the engine is running, open a downwind window slightly for ventilation and periodically clear snow from the exhaust pipe to guard against possible carbon monoxide poisoning.
    • Huddle with other passengers and use your coat for a blanket.
    • Take turns sleeping. One person should be awake at all times to look for rescue crews.
    • Drink fluids to avoid dehydration.
    • If stranded in a remote area, stomp large block letters in an open area spelling out HELP or SOS and line with rocks or tree limbs to attract the attention of rescue personnel who may be surveying the area by airplane.

If You Are Outdoors:

  • Use caution not to over exert yourself when shoveling snow.  Heart attacks caused by overexertion are a major cause of death in the winter.
  • Cover your mouth to protect your lungs from extremely cold air.
  • Keep dry. If possible, change wet clothing frequently to prevent a loss of body heat.
  • Watch for signs of frostbite. These include loss of feeling and white or pale appearance in extremities such as fingers, toes, ear lobes, and the tip of the nose. If symptoms are detected, get medical help immediately.
  • Watch for signs of hypothermia. These include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and apparent exhaustion. If symptoms of hypothermia are detected:
    • Get the victim to a warm location.
    • Remove wet clothing.
    • Put the person in dry clothing and wrap their entire body in a blanket.
    • Warm the center of the body first.
    • Give warm, non-alcoholic or non-caffeinated beverages if the victim is conscious.
    • Get medical help as soon as possible.