County Residents Encouraged to Note Precautions for Cold Weather Season
Fairfax County Office of Public
12000 Government Center Parkway, Suite 551
Fairfax, VA 22035-0065
703-324-3187, TTY 703-324-2935, FAX 703-324-2010
Dec. 20, 2004
Tomorrow Marks Official Start of Winter:
County Residents Encouraged to Note Precautions for Cold Weather
Tomorrow, Tuesday, Dec. 21, the sun will shine directly over the tropic of Capricorn and signal the first official day of winter. Officially known as the winter solstice – one of the two times a year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator – the winter solstice also marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year.
With the beginning of winter and colder weather, Fairfax County Government encourages residents to take precautions to stay safe.
The wind chill indicates how cold people and animals feel when outside. According to the National Weather Service, wind chill is based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin caused by wind and cold. As the wind increases, it draws heat from the body, driving down skin temperature and eventually the body’s internal temperature. Therefore, the wind makes it feel much colder. For example, if the temperature is zero degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing at 15 mph, the wind chill is minus 19F. At this wind chill temperature, exposed skin can freeze in 30 minutes. If you are outside, the American Red Cross encourages you to:
• Dress appropriately. The air temperature does not have to be below freezing for someone to experience cold emergencies such as hypothermia and frostbite. Wind speed can create dangerously cold conditions even when the temperature is not that low.
• Dress in layers so you can adjust to changing conditions. Avoid overdressing or overexertion that can lead to heat illness.
• Wear a hat, preferably one that covers your ears, since most body heat is lost through your head.
• Wear mittens as they provide more warmth to your hands than gloves.
• Wear waterproof, insulated boots to help avoid hypothermia or frostbite by keeping your feet warm and dry, and to maintain your footing in ice and snow.
• Get out of wet clothes immediately and warm the core body temperature with a blanket or warm fluids like hot cider or soup. Avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol if you or someone you are trying to help has hypothermia or frostbite.
• Recognize the symptoms of hypothermia that can be a serious medical condition: confusion, dizziness, exhaustion and severe shivering. Seek medical attention immediately if you have these symptoms.
• Recognize frostbite warning signs: gray, white or yellow skin discoloration, numbness, waxy feeling skin. Seek medical attention immediately if you have these symptoms.
The Fairfax County Health Department’s Environmental Health division reminds residents that maintaining a minimum house temperature in winter is for more than just comfort – it’s Virginia law. The Virginia Code requires that heating systems deliver enough heat so that a home can be kept at a minimum of 65 degrees Fahrenheit between Oct. 15 and May 1.
Health officials strongly encourage residents to check on elderly neighbors in winter months to ensure appropriate temperatures in their homes, since senior citizens are at a higher risk of hypothermia and succumbing to extreme winter temperatures.
If the main heating unit fails during extreme cold weather, homeowners can use space heaters in an emergency to provide a source of warmth. However, the Health Department advises extreme caution when using space heaters to avoid overloading electrical circuits and house fires. Residents should consult with the Fire Department on the proper use of space heaters.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, December, January and February are generally the deadliest months for fires. The NFPA also reports that the top 10 days for home fires in recent years were all between Dec. 24 and Jan. 6, and that between 1999 - 2001, Christmas day was the peak day for home candle fires, with 10 percent of the home fires reported on Christmas started by candles.
The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department recommends residents use
products such as battery-operated or electric candles and flashlights. If
citizens do elect to use open-flame candles, the following safety
measures are recommended:
• Do not place candles near combustible materials such as upholstered furniture.
• Never leave children unattended in a room with an open flame.
• Do not place candles on window ledges or near entryways. The potential air draft can “fan” the flame, catching curtains or other materials on fire.
• Keep burning candles within sight at all times. Candles can present fire hazard outdoors on decks and patios as well as inside your home.
• Always extinguish candles before leaving the home.
• Use holders designed for the particular candle style.
• Place all candles on a protected, heat resistant, dry surface away from anything that can catch fire and out of the reach of children and pets.
As families possibly turn to alternative heating sources during the
winter weather, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department also
recommends the following precautions:
• Have an alternate heat source available in case your furnace fails. Be sure to allow proper ventilation and place it in a safe location away from flammable objects. You should have at least 3 feet of clearance between your alternate heat source and anything that could burn.
• Always turn off alternate heat sources before leaving or retiring for the evening. This includes extinguishing the embers in the fireplace.
• Use a sturdy screen in front of the fireplace and burn only clean wood.
• Use generators only as independent power sources. Keep them outside and run a cord inside. Don’t connect generators to main service panels. This could injure or kill utility workers trying to restore power.
• Have a battery-powered weather radio or commercial radio to receive vital emergency information, along with a flashlight with extra batteries.
Fireplace and Wood Burning Stove
• The immediate area in front of a fireplace (approximately 3 feet) should not have a rug, carpet or exposed wood flooring.
• Allow enough clearance between a wood burning stove and combustible materials such as walls, floors and ceilings.
• Make sure the flue is open before lighting a fire.
• Never close the flue while a fire is still smoldering.
• Use a fireplace screen to prevent any sparks from reaching out and igniting nearby objects.
• Never use gasoline or lighter fluid to start a fire.
• When lighting a gas fireplace, strike your match first, then turn on the gas.
• Burn only dry, seasoned wood and dispose of the cooled ashes in a closed metal container outside of your home.
• Never leave a fire burning unattended in the fireplace.
Portable Space Heater
• Allow at least 3 feet between the heating equipment and anything that is flammable.
• Never leave a heater on when you are not in the room or when you go to sleep, and do not leave children or pets unattended around any heating source.
• Don’t use an extension cord with a portable heater. The current from the heater could melt the cord and cause a fire.
• Make sure the room has proper ventilation.
• Do not use any fluid that is not recommended for your heater. Refuel outside and only after the heater has cooled down.
• Check the wick every couple of weeks during the heating season. If the wick is dirty, clean it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
• Since a kerosene heater has a constant open flame, it should not be used in a room where there are flammable solvents, aerosol sprays, gasoline or any type of oil.
Ice skating on county ponds, lakes and retention ponds is prohibited for safety reasons. Due to our fluctuating temperatures, it is not safe to venture on any ice-covered lake, stream or stormwater retention pond. Even if the ice is a foot thick in one area, it can be one inch thick just a few yards away. It’s impossible to judge the strength of ice by its appearance, thickness, daily temperature or snow cover alone. Ice strength is actually dependent on all four factors, plus water depth under the ice, the size of the body of water, water chemistry, currents and distribution of the load on the ice.
If you fall through the ice, don’t panic. If there is someone with you, have them lie down on the ice to distribute weight over a wider area and pass you the end of a branch, rope, belt, coat sleeve, or whatever is available to help pull you onto the ice, where you can roll or wiggle to safety. Several people can form a human chain with the lightest person reaching out to you. If you’re alone, get your arms onto the ice and kick hard with your feet to help lift you onto the ice; then roll to safety.
Pets should be kept indoors during winter months, and at the very least, outdoor pets must be provided with shelter. The pet’s house should be elevated off the ground to prevent moisture accumulation and have a door of some kind to keep out winter winds, sleet and snow. Shelters should be insulated or heated. In severely cold or inclement weather, no pet should be kept outside. Indoor pets should have sleeping quarters in a draft-free, warm area with their bed or mattress elevated slightly off the floor.
• Dogs lose their sense of smell in the cold, so don’t let them off their leash or they may get lost.
• Snow and salt should be removed from pets’ paws immediately. Frostbitten skin is red or gray. Apply warm, moist towels to thaw out frostbitten areas slowly until the skin appears flushed. Contact your veterinarian as soon as possible for further care.
• Outdoor pets require extra calories to keep warm so feed your pet a little more during cold winter months. Be sure your pet’s water doesn’t freeze while outdoors by using a heated water source.
• Cats, house pets and wildlife may climb onto vehicle engines for warmth during cold weather. Be sure to check under the hood before starting your vehicle and honk the horn to startle any animals seeking shelter inside.
Freezing Pipes and Plumbing
Fairfax Water encourages residents to take the following preventative actions to protect home plumbing:
• Locate and mark the main water cutoff valve for your home. This cutoff valve is usually found near where the water line comes into your house. Damage from running water can be minimized if you can turn off this valve quickly.
• Make sure the water line to outside faucets is turned off and the line
is drained. Consider wrapping or insulating your water pipes, especially
those pipes near outside walls, under the house, or in the attic.
Insulation supplies are available at your local home improvement or
• Eliminate drafts. Check around the home for areas where water supply lines are located in unheated areas and take measures to prevent the flow of cold air in these areas. Look in the
basement, crawl space, attic, garage and under kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Both hot and cold water pipes in these areas should be insulated. A hot water supply line can freeze just as a cold water supply line can if water is not running through the pipe and the water temperature becomes cold.
• If your water pipes do freeze, never try to thaw a pipe with an open flame or torch. You can use a hair dryer or portable heater, but always be careful of the potential for electric shock in and around standing water.
• If you will be away from your home, keep the thermostat at a reasonable temperature to make sure all areas with water pipes are kept above freezing.
If you suspect you have a frozen water meter, call Fairfax Water for help. Service crews are available 24 hours a day and will respond as soon as possible to your request. You can reach Fairfax Water’s Customer Service Department at 703-698-5800, TTY 711. If after hours, the emergency number is 703-698-5613, TTY 711. Additional information can be found at www.fairfaxwater.org.
If you are vacating your home because you have lost your heat source, locate and turn off your main water cutoff valve. After the valve is turned off, open a faucet on each level of your home to allow for expansion should the undrained water freeze. If you are staying in your home or will be monitoring your home frequently, allow a faucet to drip cold water slowly. At a minimum, the dripping faucet should be the one that is the greatest distance from your main water cutoff valve. Also, consider allowing a slow drip in areas that are least protected from the cold (basements, crawl spaces, attics and garage).
Additional Information and Resources
In cases of extreme weather, Fairfax County residents concerned about the safety or well being of children, elderly adults or adults with disabilities can contact Fairfax County Child Protective Services at 703-324-7400, TTY 711 or Adult Protective Services at 703-324-7450, TTY 711.
Additional information from the Water Authority can be found at www.fairfaxwater.org. Fire safety information is available online at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/fire. Winter safety reminders from the Health Department are online at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/service/hd/hdpdf/winter.pdf.
Further information and links to additional resources is also available
on the emergency information page on the Fairfax County Web site at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/emergency. Residents may also
call the Fairfax County Government Emergency Information Line, which is
available 24 hours a day with recorded information, at 703-817-7771, TTY