Transcript of Get Ready Report podcast Episode 20:

Narrator: This is the American Public Health Association’s Get Ready Report, coming to you from Washington, D.C. Today’s episode, “Plan ahead to keep safe, warm and healthy in cold weather” interviews John Lindsey, assistant professor of the Department of Applied Disasters and Emergency Studies at Brandon University and a member of the American Red Cross’ Scientific Advisory Council.

What are the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to staying safe in cold weather?

Well I really think the most important thing is actually thinking ahead. Cold weather, especially winter storms, usually give us some warning. They aren’t something that comes up in a matter of minutes, but usually hours to a day’s warning, and so we should try to be better prepared at the time. If possible, we should stay off the roads before it gets bad. We should make sure that we’ve got the supplies we need in our homes before we need them. And we should be able to dress properly before we go out. Even if it’s fine when you’re leaving, if you know the weather is going to pack in over the next few hours of the day, take the extra warm clothing with you.

You talked about supplies in your home. What kinds of supplies would be the most important to have on hand?

Well if you’re going to be staying in your home for a few days because of bad roads or because of low temperatures, the things that you’ll need to have — if you need medications, if you’ve got a child that needs food or pet food and just general food for your family. Those sort of supplies should be in (your home) without having to feel like you need to rush out to the store to get milk or something you could have bought in a day or so earlier. But also, if you are looking at a situation where you might be losing power, then having the supplies for a disaster kit will be important as well.

What are some common mistakes people make when it comes to being prepared for cold weather?

I think a lot of people underestimate the cold weather. They get bundled up in their home before they go out and they feel too hot. Maybe they’re waiting for one of the kids to get ready or something, so they take off that scarf or they leave the hat behind. Or they go outside and they’re shoveling or building a snowman and they’re feeling too warm. They underestimate just how bad the cold can be and then they’re stuck waiting for a bus or stuck with their car and that cold really seeps in. So it’s important to recognize that cold weather is very dangerous.

What’s the best clothing for cold weather?

Layers are best. There are a lot of new products on the market. Many people think that winter clothing has to be itchy wool, but there are a lot of things out there now that are better insulators and still breathe. But the important thing is the layering because it lets you adjust as you’re working, say shoveling, you can let some of the heat off, but then if you have to stand for a while or not be working as hard, then you can close it up and keep the layers on to stay warmer.

So you recommend a hat, coat, scarf, gloves; all of those things?

Yes, certainly, all of those things! You’re going to lose heat off of your head very quickly. And any exposed skin, if there is any sort of wind along with cold temperatures, you could be looking at frostbite or other hypothermia issues. So covering up, bundling up, is important. Layers give you the opportunity to adjust that. If you’re having to push the car out of a snow bank then you’ll be able to open up that coat a little bit and then when you’re finished be able to zip back up again.

What should we eat and drink during periods of cold weather?

Your body needs energy to keep warm and so we need to find foods that provide that. Also hot food and warm drinks can help. Staying hydrated is very important, especially if you’re in very cold weather we can get very low humidity and it can be very drying. But remember not to use drinks that have alcohol or caffeine because both alcohol and caffeine actually affect the way your body regulates its heat and so they are not good to have in very cold weather.

 Okay, and let’s talk about our homes. How can we safely heat our homes during extreme cold?

There are several options to be able to do that. The problem is most people don’t think about it until they need it and then a lot of those options aren’t as easily available. If you have a home that’s relying on one source of power, if you just have electricity, for example, for both your light and electric heat, then you really should be thinking ahead of time, well ahead of time, to install a safe alternative like a wood-burning stove, having it properly and professionally installed so that you’re not creating any risks in your home.

If you have multiple sources of heat, many homes may have a gas furnace and electricity, then perhaps having a spare electric heater if the gas is not available. But we should never try to find alternative sources like a barbecue or anything like that to try to heat inside your home. The big danger of that, for any sort of alternative, is carbon monoxide if you are trying to use that sort of resource, or electrical shock or fire if you’re using a product improperly. If you’re trying to heat your home at the spur of the moment because you haven’t really thought it through and you’re trying to make do with something, then that’s going to create more risk.

You see a lot of space heaters. Is that something that we should be careful with?

Certainly. And you have to take look at what the space heater is designed for. Some are designed for areas that have a great deal of air circulation. Some of the construction heaters that are designed for half-built house are basically operating essentially outdoors and it’s not a good idea to bring something like that inside. So look at the heaters you are considering. Make sure you’re finding one that’s designed for operation in a home and make sure that it’s properly ventilated and used according to its instructions.

Let’s talk about hypothermia. Who is most at risk for hypothermia and why is it important to know the symptoms?

Everyone is at risk, but certainly people who have either poor circulation or who can’t control their own body heat are more at risk. You think about a baby all bundled up in its car carrier, it may seem warm but the child has no way of being able to tell you whether it’s hot or cold and can’t control that temperature itself. Or an elderly person or somebody maybe with a heart or circulation condition should be extra careful. It’s important also to take a Red Cross first aid course or get other training to be able to recognize and treat hypothermia.

Let’s talk about our cars. If we are out on the road and our car breaks down, what should we do if we get stranded in extreme cold or in a storm?

Again, not to go back to the same theme, but hopefully you won’t be getting stranded out on the highway. If you’re at home or you’re at work and you’re going out to your car and you find your car is already stuck, well, consider staying where you are, staying indoors. It’s not going to get any better once you’ve pushed your car out into the road. The first time, you will be looking for more trouble. And again, look ahead if you’re traveling on the highways. It might be okay in the city, it might seem fine. But once you get out into the exposed areas with blowing snow, you may be in much worse conditions.

Also of course, keep track of where the storm is coming from, where it’s heading, because again, you may find that halfway through an hour-long drive you’re wishing that you hadn’t started off in the first place. But, having said that, if you have gotten out and you do have to travel, make sure that first of all, that somebody knows that you are traveling, especially if you are traveling outside the city, let them know what route you’re going on, when you’re likely to arrive so that they can be expecting you and if possible, have a cell phone with you so you can call for help if you do get stuck.

And if you are stuck in a blizzard or snow storm, it’s important that you remain calm and stay in your car. We just had a tragic death in Canada; a week ago, a 40-year-old man was found just a few feet literally from his car. Again, you get out of your car in the snow, you get disoriented, and perhaps not dressed properly. So it’s important to stay in your car to get shelter. Make sure you have a little bit of fresh air in your car. Maybe opening a window just slightly on the wind-down side, the sheltered side, so that you can keep that little bit of fresh air in. If you can, make sure that your exhaust pipe is clear, checking it regularly. You should try running your car maybe for about 10 minutes every half hour just to keep the engine warm and to put some heat into the vehicle, but only do that if you’re sure that he exhaust system is clear, because again, you don’t want those exhaust fumes backing up into the vehicle. Remember that carbon monoxide is one of our main killers in winter storms, either inside the home from improperly used heating devices or people stuck in their cars, so we should watch out for that.

What should go in a car survival kit?

You basically need to try to make sure you’re meeting those similar basic needs. You definitely need to drink, so bottled water or something like that. But remember, if you’re living in a climate where the temperatures are below freezing frequently then your bottled water may have frozen in the back of your car. Some agencies recommend having a tin or a pot with you and a candle to be able to melt snow or make water. I’m always a bit more nervous about recommending candles, especially when you’re in a small, confined space with loose scarves and wool hats and things but it is an option.

You need some sort of heat source. There are various warmer heat packs on the market that use a chemical reaction to generate heat. Those are quite useful, enough to be able to keep hands and feet warm. You need to have some sort of source of light. You can turn your light on when the car is running, your interior light, but don’t leave it on if you don’t want to drain the battery. So, flashlight, spare batteries is a good idea, maybe perhaps a light stick, but again, if you‘re living in a part of the country that has prolonged freezing conditions, remember some of those items may not work as well if they’ve been frozen. It’s good to have a first aid kit in your vehicle and of course something to eat. Some sort of snack foods, perhaps an energy bar. Something that’s easy to pack and eat that will give you that energy when you need it.

And what about pets?

Well of course, we have to take care of our pets. They need to be properly cared for and some animals, especially some of our dogs, love the snow but others aren’t so well prepared for it. You need to watch, especially their paws, if you take them for walks in the snow that you don’t get ice buildup in their paws. It’s good to make sure that if they are accustomed to drinking outside that the water is not freezing. Avoid metal dishes that could freeze and they could get stuck to when they are lapping up the water. Generally, treat them the way you would treat yourself. Make sure you keep them fed and warm and hydrated.

Most animals are designed for different climates. If you have a husky or a dog that’s accustomed to cooler temperatures, their natural fur is going to be good. But if you’ve got an animal that’s not from a cold climate historically, then perhaps a coat for them would help. It depends as well what you’re doing with them. If they’re just staying indoors during the storm, then they should be fine.

That’s great! Is there anything else you wanted to add, John?

No, again the most important message is to plan ahead. Winter storms are fairly easy to get through if you’ve taken those initial precautions and have the supplies on hand that you need.

Than you for being with us today. For more tips, on how you can keep your families safe in emergencies, visit or and thanks again John.

Narrator: Thank you for tuning in for today’s podcast. To learn more about the American Public Health Association’s Get Ready campaign, visit

Interview conducted January 2011 by Teddi Dineley Johnson, The Nation’s Health, APHA

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