Winter Preparedness Information

Fairfax County Office of Public Affairs
12000 Government Center Parkway, Suite 551
Fairfax, VA 22035-0065
703-324-3187, TTY 711, FAX 703-324-2010

Nov. 30, 2005

Dec. 4-10 Is Proclaimed Winter Preparedness Week in Virginia; First Official Day of Winter Is Almost Here

County Residents Encouraged to Note Precautions for Cold Weather Season

Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner has declared the week of Dec. 4-10 as “Winter Preparedness Week” in the commonwealth of Virginia. And Wednesday, Dec. 21 will signal the first official day of winter. With the beginning of winter and colder weather, Fairfax County encourages residents to take precautions to stay safe.

Cold Temperatures and Wind Chill
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 that is 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 19 F. At this wind chill temperature, exposed skin can freeze in 30 minutes. If you are going to be 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, which 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.
  • After coming inside, get out of wet clothes immediately, and warm the core body temperature with a blanket or warm fluids such as hot cider or soup. Avoid caffeine or alcohol in cases of 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.

Shoveling Snow
According to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, shoveling snow is hard on your body. Research has shown the energy used to shovel snow is similar to playing singles tennis or speed walking at 5 mph. If there is any reason that shoveling snow might be dangerous for you, such as a heart condition, consult your doctor before picking up a shovel.

Emergency Supply Kit
Since ice storms and blizzards can knock down power lines, freeze water pipes and prevent you from traveling, county residents should be sure to have a home emergency supply kit, including:

  • At least a three-day supply of food that won’t spoil.
  • Three gallons of water per person, per day.
  • A battery-powered radio (people with hearing impairments should consider signing up for the Community Emergency Alert Network at and obtaining a cell phone with text messaging capacity).
  • A flashlight with extra batteries.
  • First-aid kit.
  • An extra supply of prescription or over-the-counter medicines.
  • A plan for those with special needs that might need to stay in your home because they lost utilities after a storm. Those with special needs could include the elderly, people with disabilities and the medically frail.

Additional information on assembling an emergency supply kit is available online at the Fairfax County Citizens Corps Web page,, as well as the county’s emergency information Web page,

People With Disabilities
People with disabilities also may want to take extra care during the cold weather season. Since some disabling conditions may limit sensory abilities and the ability to maintain body heat, be particularly vigilant about staying warm when you are out in low temperatures. It’s also a good idea to carry a cell phone. Wear multiple layers of clothing, including a scarf around your neck, a winter hat, lined boots and two pairs of socks. If possible, wear thermal gloves underneath mittens to keep your hands warm.

If you travel in a wheelchair, wrap a small blanket around your legs, tucking it underneath yourself or around your sides. This will help to maintain body heat. Wheelchair users may consider purchasing pneumatic tires for better traction. Another alternative is standard dirt bicycle tires. Use table salt or clay cat litter to clear ramps – rock salt can poison working assistance animals and also may be slippery. Remove the tires from your wheelchair and shake debris and ice off them before placing them in your vehicle. Wipe down any metal surfaces (wheelchair tire rims, walkers, etc.) as soon as possible after returning home. This will prevent rusting.

If you are a wheelchair user and unaccustomed to heavy, strenuous wheeling, be very careful when travelling through snow. The added exertion could lead to a heart attack or stroke. Freezing rain also will stick to surfaces such as canes, walkers, forearm cuffs and wheelchairs. Use gripper driving gloves to keep your hands warm and to prevent slipping.

If you use a working assistance dog, remember that dogs also can suffer from hypothermia and frostbite. Get a dog coat to place under the harness, and consider getting boots for the paws. Also, have a blanket in your vehicle for the dog.

Home Heating
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 causing house fires. Residents should consult with the Fire Department on the proper use of space heaters.

Low-income Fairfax County residents who face an emergency heating situation this winter may be able to access assistance from the federally funded Crisis Assistance program, which is locally administered by the county’s Department of Family Services. The Crisis Assistance program helps households in heating emergency situations with primary heat security deposits, utility heating bills, repair/replacement of heating equipment or primary heating fuel. The Crisis Assistance application period began Tuesday, Nov. 1, and closes on Wednesday, March 15, 2006. Funding is limited and benefits for eligible applicants are based on availability of funds.

To apply for the Crisis Assistance program, call the Department of Family Services’ energy assistance phone line at 703-324-7604, TTY 703-222-9452, and ask for an application to be mailed, or pick up an application at any of the department’s four offices:

  • Fairfax – Pennino Building, 12011 Government Center Parkway
    703-324-7500, TTY 703-222-9452.
  • Falls Church – 6245 Leesburg Pike (Route 7)
    703-533-5300, TTY 703-533-5316.
  • Reston – Lake Anne Office Building, 11484 Washington Plaza West
    703-787-4900, TTY 703-707-9346.
  • Richmond Highway/Alexandria – South County Center, 8350 Richmond Highway (Route 1) 703-704-6353, TTY 703-799-3435.

Shelter From the Cold
If someone you know in Fairfax County is homeless, they are welcome to come in from the cold to sleep in a safe place. Call one of the county’s community shelters about the winter program:

  • The Bailey’s Crossroads Community Shelter is located in the Bailey’s/Culmore area at 3525 Moncure Ave. on the corner of Moncure and Columbia Pike at Bailey’s Crossroads. Telephone 703-820-7621, TTY 711.
  • The Eleanor U. Kennedy Shelter is located near Fort Belvoir at 9155 Richmond Highway (Route 1). Telephone 703-799-0200, TTY 711.
  • The Embry Rucker Community Shelter is located at 11975 Bowman Towne Drive in Reston near the Reston Library. Telephone 703-437-1975, TTY 711.

An additional source of shelter from the cold for people who are living outdoors is the Hypothermia Prevention Program, coordinated by FACETS (Fairfax Area Christian Emergency and Transitional Services). County emergency personnel and shelter staff can refer individuals to this resource, if appropriate.

Fire Safety
According to the National Fire Protection Association, the winter holidays mean more cooking, home decorating, entertaining and an increased risk of fire from heating equipment. The NFPA reports that Christmas Day was the peak day of the year for home candle fires between 1999-2002, with New Year’s Day and Christmas Eve tied for second.

According to the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, during the 2004 winter heating period, there were 189 reported fires involving home heating equipment, which resulted in eight deaths, six injuries, four firefighter injuries and $3,435,035 in property loss in Virginia.

The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department recommends that residents use products such as battery-operated or electric candles and flashlights. If residents 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 the 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.

Alternative Heating Source Safety
If families use alternative heating sources during the winter weather (it’s a good idea to have one available in case the furnace fails), the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department recommends the following precautions:

  • Be sure to allow proper ventilation and place it in a safe location away from flammable objects. You should have at least three feet of clearance between your alternate heat source and anything that could burn.
  • Always turn off alternate heat sources before leaving or going to bed for the evening and do not leave children or pets unattended around any heating source. This includes extinguishing the embers in the fireplace – never leave a fire burning unattended in the fireplace.
  • 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.
  • Use a sturdy screen in front of the fireplace to avoid sparks from flying out and igniting nearby objects and burn only clean wood.
  • 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.
  • Never use gasoline or lighter fluid to start a fire.
  • When lighting a gas fireplace, strike the 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.
  • 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 before using a kerosene heater.
  • 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.
  • Do not use a fluid that is not recommended for your heater. Refuel outside and only after the heater has cooled down.
  • Check the heater’s wick every couple of weeks during the heating season. If the wick is dirty, clean it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

The Fire Department also recommends having smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms – and changing the batteries in each device every six months. Smoke alarms should be placed near each sleeping area as well as the basement. For individuals who are difficult to wake up, it may be necessary to install an additional smoke alarm inside the bedroom. It is recommended that there be at least one smoke alarm on every level of the home.

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 waterline comes into your house. Damage from running water can be minimized if you can turn off this valve quickly.
  • Make sure the waterline 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 local home improvement or hardware stores.
  • 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 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. You can reach Fairfax Water’s Customer Service Department at 703-698-5800, TTY 711. After hours, the emergency number is 703-698-5613, TTY 711. Additional information can be found at

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. Consider allowing a slow drip in areas that are least protected from the cold (basements, crawl spaces, attics and garages).

Road Safety
According to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, residents also should prepare for cold weather when traveling. Here are some road safety tips:

  • Tell someone at home (a friend, relative or co-worker) you are taking a trip, where you are going, the routes you will travel and when you expect to arrive.
  • Before you leave town, fill your gas tank. While traveling, frequently refill the gas tank.
  • Don’t get on the road without a winter travel survival kit. Your kit should include items such as a cell phone, blankets or sleeping bags, water, high-calorie foods that don’t require refrigeration or cooking, a flashlight with extra batteries and a first-aid kit.
  • If your vehicle breaks down, pull as far off the road as possible. Your greatest personal danger at this point is being hit by passing cars.
  • Stay in the car if visibility is poor. You may become disoriented and lost while wandering in a snowstorm, making it more difficult for rescuers to find you. If you have a cell phone, call for help.

Pet Safety
Pets should be kept indoors during winter months. If a pet is outdoors it 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.

Ice Safety
Ice skating on county ponds, lakes and retention ponds is prohibited for safety reasons. Due to 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 1-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.

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. Information from the Water Authority can be found at Fire safety information is available at Winter safety reminders from the Health Department are online at

Further information is available on Fairfax County’s emergency information page at as well as the Virginia Department of Emergency Management’s Web page at During times of emergency or crisis, residents also may call the Fairfax County Government Emergency Information Line, which is available 24 hours a day with recorded information, at 703-817-7771, TTY 711.


To request this information in an alternate format, call the Office of Public Affairs at 703-324-3187, TTY 711.

Contact Fairfax County: Phone, Email or Twitter | Main Address: 12000 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax, VA 22035
Technical Questions: Web Administrator

ADA Accessibility | Website Accessibility
Awards | FOIA | Mobile | Using this Site | Web Disclaimer & Privacy Policy | Get Adobe Reader
Official site of the County of Fairfax, Virginia, © Copyright 2015

Website Feedback Website Feedback    Globe with various flags representing Web site language translations   Language Translations

Return to Graphic Version