The Ultimate Emergency Management Guide to Winter Storms
Would you believe Canadians have learned some tough lessons in emergency management during winter seasons? Storms can happen in any region of our planet, during winter these awesome displays of nature's power can have a much higher impact on our communities.
Winter Storm: Temperatures
In Canada, winter temperatures vary significantly (<-40C/-40F to +20C/68F within 24 hours), and when the mercury drops even a minor interruption in services can have a disastrous effect. Humans don’t work well in the cold. Even a small drop in our core body temperature results in cognitive impairment of attention, speed of processing, memory, and executive function. This is a risk emergency managers need to mitigate for both responders and those they are rescuing.
The second risk from storms and low temperatures becomes quickly evident when power loss occurs. Besides needing to keep the humans warm, buildings without power quickly begin to freeze. If a building freezes it can sustain plumbing damage which will further complicate recovery efforts and could impact critical service delivery.
Car won’t start? We need a remote starter.
1. Remote Working and the Virtual EOC
As soon as an incident looks like more than a routine winter response, an emergency management team needs to be activated. Our ultimate emergency management guide to winter storms starts with a process that leverages your team’s knowledge and skills without putting them at risk. What better time to implement a virtual EOC from the comfort of anywhere but outside? A virtual EOC enables emergency management staff to start their work without being exposed to a winter storm’s wrath.
- A mass notification tool
- A virtual EOC
- A way to collect and disseminate information from multiple locations
- A way to facilitate successful interagency collaboration
Check out D4H Incident Management for your all-in-one solution for the above.
Winter Storm: Snow
What winter storm wouldn’t be complete without some snow? Excess precipitation in any season can contribute to a number of challenges such as road closures, safety concerns, and transportation restrictions (isolation). The additional challenge with snow is that it doesn’t go anywhere, it just sits and waits for warmer spring temperatures or your shovel.
2. Stabilizing the Incident
After a storm has passed, we need to help return our community back to normality. Is your community infrastructure priority map updated? Where are your essential services and what are the top priority transportation corridors that need to be opened first? As an emergency manager ask yourself, can you access that information without having to go to the office? Cloud-based software invites the opportunity for you access to your work from any location, on any device. Now is the time to leverage that technology.
Here’s how Clinton County EMA uses D4H to track damage to historical sites and critical infrastructure during a severe weather event:
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Another challenge that creeps in with the accumulation of snow is ventilation or lack thereof. Ever try to operate a vehicle with the exhaust plugged? It doesn’t work. The same happens with your house (think furnace/chimney). Too many avoidable deaths have occurred when residents have attempted to use barbeques or generators indoors. Being a silent and odorless killer, residents may need assistance with this danger if their house is buried in snow.
The City of Toronto removed 45,000 tonnes of snow, clearing 700km of roads with 600 snowplows, and 1,500 personnel during a record snowfall on January 27, 2022. How long would this take in your community?
Managing a team of this size is going to require organization, clear communication, and a method to track progress. Can your emergency management tools help turn this part of the recovery phase into a standard working day for public works?
Checklist for Stabilizing the Incident
- Predefine critical infrastructure in your area
- Prepare local maps
- Have a system that ensures ready and organized personnel
Winter Storm: Freezing Rain
If snow buries our incident in troubles, the worst environmental factor still has to be ice. Making roads treacherous and slippery is the minor side of winter ice. The worst consequences can escalate to the complete collapse of structures, from the sheer weight of ice. Freezing rain is caused by precipitation that falls through a relatively mild weather layer that melts the falling snow; until it encounters the cold sub-freezing on the Earth’s surface where it freezes instantly. During the 1998 North American ice storm, damage devastated parts of northern New England, New York, and southeast Canada affecting millions of people.
Ice storm weight collapses power lines causing massive disruptions in power to several communities. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the insured losses of the Ice Storm of 1998 totaled $1.6 billion. The total economic costs were estimated to be between $5 and $7 billion.
3. Property Protection
While the third priority during our emergency response is often property, in this winter storm guide it’s also important to consider the impact of the storm on your ability to respond when your property/infrastructure is damaged and unavailable to aid a response.
The ultimately prepared emergency manager would certainly have a reception center that includes supplies to take care of crew and residents, but what if a tree has taken out the roof, or the power is down for days we are going to need help.
During the 1998 ice storm, power interruptions impacted so many communities during the sub-freezing temperatures of January that the military was called in and temporary power solutions (train engines) were required to keep essential services like city hall and hospitals operational. Over 14,000 troops were dispatched to help during the 1998 Ice Storm; Canada’s largest peacetime deployment in history.
As an emergency manager ask yourself what is your plan B. More importantly, when your resources are overwhelmed and massive help appears like 14,000 military personnel or the national train service donates their train engines to power your infrastructure are you able to direct them to your highest needed areas?
Property Protection Checklist
- Plan for alternative emergency shelter locations
- Prepare backup power. Could you drive a 260,000-pound train locomotive to the building to deliver power or do you have generators maintained and ready?
- Maintain and be able to coordinate mutual aid assistance
Winter Storm: Informing the Public
We have seen how winter storms bring additional hazards with cold temperatures, snow, and ice but this information is only valuable with timely delivery to our public stakeholders.
Remember those temperature swings? Let your public know when you realize “it is bad”. Even for long-time residents, it’s easy to mistake a massive blizzard storm front as a simple snowfall. As an emergency manager, what methods of communication do you have to ensure prompt and specific information is delivered to your residents?
Check out how to keep the public informed during a disaster with D4H.
Finally, we need to ensure our communities are more resilient and prepared for disasters like winter storms. Remember that 1998 ice storm? A later inquiry found that Quebec’s power grid and emergency management system were woefully unprepared—including Montreal’s water filtration plant, which barely averted a public health catastrophe when it lost power for several hours. Public Safety Canada now recommends keeping at least 12 liters of drinking water on hand per person, enough for three days. We need to help our residents to be prepared.
Public Communication Checklist
- Public notification of emergency shelters and warm-up center locations
- Ongoing public preparation (72-hour kits)
- Deliver timely resident communication
- Methods to remind people of the dangers during power outages
- Manage requests for information during the incident
With climate change and global temperature swings now affecting our entire globe, the risk of winter storms has grown to affect new regions worldwide (see Mexico July 30, 2019).
It’s important that we can learn from the lessons of others and benefit by applying technology to reduce the impact if this happens to you.
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About the Author
For over seven years, Clinton Boyda has led a regional municipal agency in Alberta, Canada, as the Director of Emergency Management (DEM). Representing ten municipalities, Clinton has seen how important using a tool like D4H is to help Emergency Managers keep organized during all phases of a disaster. Also, as a Search and Rescue First Responder, he has seen the value D4H provides to manage certifications, call-outs, and incident reports. What tools are you using to be better prepared to respond to your next Winter Storm?