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Volume 31, Issue 1

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Thursday, 08 March 2018 16:52

4 Things to Know About Preparing for Winter Weather

How to help your organization plan for and respond to weather emergencies

By Glen Denny, Baron Services, Inc.

Hospitals, campuses, and emergency management offices should all be actively preparing for winter weather so they can be ready to respond to emergencies. Weather across the country is varied and ever-changing, but each region has specific weather threats that are common to their area. Understanding these common weather patterns and preparing for them in advance is an essential element of an emergency preparedness plan. For each weather event, those responsible for organizational safety should know and understand these four important factors: location, topography, timing, and pacing.

In addition, be sure to understand the important terms the National Weather Service (NWS) uses to describe changing weather conditions. Finally, develop and communicate a plan for preparing for and responding to winter weather emergencies. Following the simple steps in the sample planning tool provided will aid you in building an action plan for specific weather emergency types.

Location determines the type, frequency and severity of winter weather

Denny1The type of winter weather experienced by a region depends in great part on its location, including proximity to the equator, bodies of water, mountains, and forests. These factors can shape the behavior of winter weather in a region, determining its type, frequency, and severity. Knowing how weather affects a region can be the difference in the number of lives saved and lives lost.

Winter weather can have a huge impact on a region’s economy. For example, in the first quarter of 2015, insurance claims for winter storm damage totaled $2.3 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based industry association. One Boston-area insurance executive called it the worst first quarter of winter weather claim experience he’d ever seen. The statistics, quoted in an article that appeared in the Boston Globe, noted that most claims were concentrated in the Northeast, where winter storms had dumped 9 feet of snow in Greater Boston. According to the article, Mounting insurance claims are remnants of a savage winter, “That volume of claims was above longtime historic averages, and coupled with the recent more severe winters could prompt many insurance companies to eventually pass the costs on to consumers through higher rates.”

Denny2Every region has unique winter weather, and different ways to mitigate the damage. Northern regions will usually have some form of winter precipitation – but they also have the infrastructure to handle it. In these areas, there is more of a risk that mild events can become more dangerous because people are somewhat desensitized to winter weather. Sometimes, they ignore warnings and travel on the roads anyway. Planners should remember to issue continual reminders of just how dangerous winter conditions can be.

Areas of the Southwest are susceptible to mountain snows and extreme cold temperatures. These areas need warming shelters and road crews to deal with snow and ice events when they occur.

Denny3Any winter event in the Southeast can potentially become an extreme event, because organizations in this area do not typically have many resources to deal with it. It takes more time to put road crews in place, close schools, and shut down travel. There is also an increased risk for hypothermia, because people are not as aware of the potential dangers cold temperatures can bring. Severe storms and tornadoes can also happen during the winter season in the Southeast.

Figure 1 is a regional map of the United States. Table 1 outlines the major winter weather issues each region should consider and plan for.

Topography influences winter weather

Denny4Topography includes cities, rivers, and mountains Topographical features influence winter weather, because they help direct air flow causing air to rise, fall, and change temperature. Wide open spaces – like those found in the Central U.S. – will increase wind issues.

Timing has a major effect on winter weather safety

Denny5Knowing when a winter event will strike is one of the safety official’s greatest assets because it enables a degree of advance warning and planning. But even with early notification, dangerous road conditions that strike during rush hour traffic can be a nightmare. Snowstorms that struck Atlanta, GA and Birmingham, AL a few years ago occurred in the middle of the day without adequate warning or preparation and caused travel-related problems.

Pacing of an event is important – the speed with which it occurs can have adverse impacts

Denny6Storms that occur in a few hours can frequently catch people off guard and without appropriate preparation or advanced planning. In some regions, like the Northeast, people are so immune to winter weather that they ignore the slower, milder events. Many people think it is fine to be out on the roads with a little snowfall, but it will accumulate over time. It is not long before they are stranded on snowy or icy roads.

Denny7As part of considering winter event pacing, emergency planners should become familiar with the terms the National Weather Service (NWS) currently uses to describe winter weather phenomenon (snow, sleet, ice, wind chill) that affect public safety, transportation, and/or commerce. Note that for all advisories designated as a “warning,” travel will become difficult or impossible in some situations. For these circumstances, planners should urge people to delay travel plans until conditions improve.

A brief overview of NWS definitions appears on Table 2. For more detailed information, go to https://www.weather.gov/lwx/WarningsDefined.

Planning for winter storms

After hurricanes and tornadoes, severe winter storms are the “third-largest cause of insured catastrophic losses,” according to Dr. Robert Hartwig, immediate past president of the Insurance Information Institute (III), who was quoted in Property Casualty 360° online publication. “Most winters, losses from snow, ice and other freezing hazards total approximately $1.2 billion, but some storms can easily exceed that average.”

Given these figures, organizations should take every opportunity to proactively plan. Prepare your organization for winter weather. Have a defined plan and communicate it to all staff. The plan should include who is responsible for monitoring the weather, what information is shared and how. Identify the impact to the organization and show how you will maintain your facility, support your customers, and protect your staff.

Denny8Once you have a plan, be sure to practice it just as you would for any other crisis plan. Communicate the plan to others in the supply chain and transportation partners. Make sure your generator tank is filled and ready for service.

Denny9Implement your plan and be sure to review and revise it based on how events unfold and feedback from those involved.

Denny10A variety of tools are available to help prepare action plans for weather events. The following three figures are tools Baron developed for building action plans for various winter weather events.

Use these tools to determine the situation’s threat level, then adopt actions suggested for moderate and severe threats – and develop additional actions based on your own situation.

Weather technology assists in planning for winter events

A crucial part of planning for winter weather is the availability of reliable and detailed weather information to understand how the four factors cited affect the particular event. For example, Baron Threat Net provides mapping that includes local bodies of water and rivers along with street level mapping. Threat Net also provides weather pattern trends and expected arrival times along with their expected impact on specific areas. This includes 48-hour models of temperature, wind speed, accumulated snow, and accumulated precipitation. In addition to Threat Net, the Baron API weather solution can be used by organizations that need weather integrated into their own products and services.

To assist with the pacing evaluation, proximity alerts can forecast an approaching wintery mix and snow, and can be used along with NWS advisories. While these advisories are critical, the storm or event has to reach the NWS threshold for a severe weather event. By contrast, technology like proximity alerting is helpful – just because an event does not reach a NWS defined threshold does not mean it is not dangerous! Pinpoint alerting capabilities can alert organizations when dangerous storms are approaching. Current conditions road weather information covers flooded, slippery, icy, and snow covered conditions. The information can be viewed on multiple fixed and mobile devices at one time, including an operation center display, desktop display, mobile phone, and tablet.

An example is a Nor’easter storm that occurred in February 2017 along the east coast. The Baron forecasting model was accurate and consistent in the placement of the heavy precipitation, including the rain/snowfall line leading up to the event and throughout the storm. Models also accurately predicted the heaviest bands of snow, snow accumulation, and wind speed. Based on the radar image showing the rain to snow line slowly moving to the east the road conditions product displayed a brief spatial window where once the snow fell, roads were still wet for a very short time before becoming snow-covered, which is evident in central and southern NJ and southeastern RI.

Final thoughts on planning for winter weather

Denny11Every region within the United States will experience winter weather differently. The key is knowing what you are up against and how you can best respond. Considering the four key factors – location, topography, timing, and pacing – will help your organization plan and respond proactively.