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First snow brings winter prep reminder

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --   The first snow of the year Oct. 10, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Phillip Houk)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Buckley Air Force Base's first snow of winter 2012 fell Oct. 5, 2012. The first winter snow brings reminders for people to winterize their homes and cars. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Phillip Houk)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Though merely a light dusting, the first snow hit the ground early Oct. 5. While the powder could mean a number of things, such as an early winter, a great ski season or hot cocoa by the fire, it definitely means one thing - it's time to prepare for colder temperatures, snowstorms and hazardous driving conditions.

Before settling in for the winter, individuals should know where to get weather information, where to find emergency weather updates and what weather terms mean. There's a significant difference between a winter weather advisory and a blizzard warning.

According to the National Weather Service, a winter weather watch means winter precipitation is possible in 24-48 hours. A warning is issued when winter precipitation could lead to threats to life or property and is the most serious winter weather message. An advisory means there aren't expectations of risk to life or property, but the storm could impact travel and other activities. Winter storms refer to any combination of winter precipitation; heavy snow involves four or more inches of snow in a 12-hour period or six or more in a 24-hour period; freezing rain describes rain that may freeze on contact and could cause serious travel issues; ice storms involve the accumulation of freezing rain on trees and power lines; a blizzard is a combination of falling and blowing snow and high winds that is potentially life-threatening; and wind chill is an estimate of how the cold feels when exposed to human skin.

From one's car or house to the roads and traffic, the first snow signals the necessity to prepare for the months ahead. Especially for those who are either new to Colorado or have never experienced winter, it's important to read and heed the following tips from The Weather Channel and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure this coming winter passes sans disaster.

Winterize vehicles and homes

The most important thing for many situations is be prepared, and cars and houses are a good place to start battening down the hatches.

People should check to make sure vehicles are ready for winter road conditions. Before the temperature drops too low, clean and wax vehicles as it will be easier to brush off snow and ice. Check battery power, headlights, taillights, turn signals and hazards, and make sure to top off all coolant, transmission fluid, oil and other liquids. Consider carrying an extra bottle of windshield wiper fluid in the car. Keep the fuel tank near full at all times when temperatures are low to avoid ice in unwanted places.

If necessary, purchase new windshield wipers at the nearest auto supply store or dealer to offer maximum visibility in poor weather conditions. When purchasing wiper fluid, it may be warranted to find a bottle with a deicer agent. Brush snow and scrape ice from the windshield before running the wipers, as not doing so may result in burning out the windshield wiper engine. Never poor water on a windshield to de-ice it, as this can cause the windshield to shatter.

Check tires for appropriate tread because without proper tire tread, people may find their vehicles slipping and sliding across the road regardless if the vehicle has four-wheel drive.

Build and carry an essentials kit in your car - or backpack if riding a bike or on foot. Essentials include:
- Snow brush and ice scraper
- Emergency first aid kit
- Jumper cables
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- Bottled water
- Non-perishable snacks
- Blanket, as well as additional warm clothing and accessories
- Required prescription medications
- Tire chains, as necessary

Note: According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Colorado Chain Law is only in effect during certain times of year. Notifications are made on electronic signs, 511 traveler information phone line, www.cotrip.org and other media outlets. While regular motorists are not required by law to carry chains at all times, either chains or sufficient tires may be necessary on certain roadways.

Other items to consider carrying in a winter essentials kit include:
- Paper towels
- Collapsible shovel
- Battery-operated radio
- Non-prescription drugs
- Sewing kit
- Basic tools such as a wrench, screwdriver and hammer
- Signal flare
- Rope
- Map of the area and a compass
- Toiletries such as toilet paper, disinfectant and other personal hygiene items
- Form of entertainment such as books, games, or paper and pencil
- Scraps of carpet for traction if stuck

If weather makes it necessary to pull over, there are immediate steps to take. First, turn on hazards. Then, gather all essential items out of the trunk to avoid unnecessary trips outside, and tie a bright colored cloth to the antenna as a signal to rescuers. It's important to be mindful of carbon monoxide poisoning if sheltering in your vehicle. Run the motor and heater 10 minutes every hour. Avoid carbon monoxide poisoning by cracking a window and removing snow from near the exhaust pipe. Don additional cold-weather clothing items as necessary, and huddle with others for body heat. Turn on the overhead light if staying overnight in the car as doing so will allow rescuers and work crews to see the vehicle.

Other vehicle travel tips include letting someone know travel plans and estimated time of return, driving only during hours of daylight, not traveling alone, staying on main roads and avoiding hills.

Once vehicles are ready for the road, don't forget to also prepare the home as heavy snows can wreak havoc on roofs, exterior walls and foundation.

If snow piles too high on the roof and too much weight bears down on the house, it may be necessary to consult a roofing contractor to prevent self-injury in trying to remove the snow. While the roof may be too hazardous for a do-it-yourself task, shovel or brush snow from the immediate exterior of the home near the foundation to prevent water damage and intrusion as it melts.

Prevent bursting pipes by fitting exposed pipes with insulation, sealing cracks and holes in outside walls, opening cabinet doors to allow warm air to circulate near the pipes and keeping unheated or unprotected pipes trickling. It is important to know how to shut off the home's water supply should a pipe break.

Should a storm move in, be prepared with extra wood for fireplaces or an extra space heater. Always keep space heaters away from flammable objects such as furniture and drapes, and never place damp clothing items on them to dry. If using a generator during a power outage, keep it outdoors and only use outdoor-rated power cords. Have extra blankets handy to keep warm, and know where all cold-weather clothing is in case it's necessary to make a trip outside.

When the winter chill engulfs the house, take a few steps to minimize heat loss in the home. Ensure attics are well-ventilated and appropriately insulated. Ensure all windows and doors are properly closed. Close off all unused areas of the house to conserve heat, and place towels at the bottom of the door. Avoid opening and closing doors unnecessarily, but do bring pets inside. If unable to bring them in, ensure they have a warm shelter, food and unfrozen water.

Just as a vehicle emergency kit is essential, so is equipping one's home. Take into consideration power may be out and microwaves, refrigerators or ovens won't be usable. Keep non-perishable items at home for this reason. Have bottled water at home; don't rely on water from faucets as they may freeze in sub-zero temperatures. In an emergency, boiling snow for water can kill germs but won't eliminate chemicals that may be present.

It's important to make sure the entire family is prepared for a weather emergency. Discuss plans with all members of the household, and designate a place to meet if separated in a storm. Also, charge phones, laptops and other devices in advance if a storm is on the way.

The body and its reaction to the cold

When temperatures drop, the body reacts. It's important to know how bodies react to the cold and what to do to prevent serious injury.

The best way to avoid cold-related injuries is to limit exposure either by not venturing into the elements or donning the appropriate attire for cold weather. Monitor body temperature, especially for infants and people more than 65 years old.

Extended exposure can lead to frostnip or frostbite. Initial symptoms include skin turning red and painful, and frostnip follows. Skin, usually the face, ears and fingertips, become numb and turn a bluish-white color, according to WebMD. Once the skin warms, feeling and color return to the frost nipped areas and no permanent damage occurs. Frostbite is more severe as skin and tissues actually freeze. Skin turns a pale blue, is stiff and may feel rubbery to the touch. The most severe cases of frostbite can result in amputation.

Anyone experiencing symptoms of frostbite should seek immediate medical. If immediate care is not available due to severe weather or travel restrictions, either immerse the affected areas in warm water or warm the areas with body heat. Do not rub affected areas as this can cause more skin and tissue damage. Seek medical care as soon as possible.

Often concurrent with frostbite, hypothermia is also a danger to one's health in the wintry weather. Hypothermia occurs when one loses body heat faster than it can be produced, usually during lengthy exposure to cooler temperatures. Often, people with hypothermia experience an inability to think or act clearly and are unable to move properly. Warning signs include shivering, exhaustion and confusion in adults. Infants' symptoms include low energy and cold, red skin.

If one's body temperature sinks below 95 degrees, it is imperative to seek medical care. If unable to find immediate assistance, remove wet clothing from the victim, warm the person's core first with a blanket or skin-to-skin contact, provide a warm, non-alcoholic beverage only if the person is conscious, and get medical attention as soon as possible. Start CPR if the victim appears dead and continue until medical assistance is available as hypothermia victims can sometimes be resuscitated.

To avoid the nightmare of frostnip, frostbite or hypothermia, prepare before stepping into the winter cold. Layer clothing and wear cold-weather accessories such as a hat, scarf, coat, and mittens or gloves. Remove wet clothing items, and get inside if you start to shiver.

There are other ways the cold can affect one's body besides frostnip, frostbite and hypothermia. While shoveling or playing hard in the snow, remember cold weather puts extra strain on one's heart. Dress appropriately and work mindfully to avoid over-exertion. Be careful walking on ice, even if the area already has salt, sand or other de-icing compound. Outdoor enthusiasts should notify friends or family of their whereabouts when hiking, fishing, camping or skiing. Layer clothing, but remove layers as necessary to avoid perspiring. Before setting out, remember to check the forecast and travel advisories for the area.

The bottom line is be prepared for the coming months - whether staying indoors or venturing into the wild - and always have a plan.

(Information from The Weather Channel, WebMD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Institute for Business and Homes Safety was used in this article.)
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