Winter Preparedness Reminders

Fairfax County Office of Public Affairs
12000 Government Center Parkway, Suite 551
Fairfax, VA 22035-0065
Contact: Merni Fitzgerald, Director of Public Affairs
703-324-3187, TTY 711, Fax 703-324-2010
Media Pager: 703-324-NEWS (6397)

Nov. 30, 2007

Winter Preparedness Reminders

County Residents Encouraged to Plan for Cold Weather Season

With the beginning of winter and colder weather, Fairfax County encourages residents to take precautions to stay safe. The following are many tips and reminders of how to stay safe during the winter weather season.

Why Talk About Winter Weather?

  • Each year, injuries occur during winter due to exposure to the cold and vehicle accidents, as well as dangerous use of heaters.
  • Threats such as hypothermia and frostbite can lead to dangerous results.
  • A major winter storm can last for several days and be accompanied by high winds, freezing rain or sleet, heavy snowfall and cold temperatures.
  • People can become trapped at home or in a car, without utilities or other assistance.
  • Attempting to walk for help in a winter storm can be extremely dangerous.
  • The aftermath of a winter storm can have an impact on a community or region for days, weeks or even months.
  • Extremely cold temperatures, heavy snow and coastal flooding can cause hazardous conditions and hidden problems.

Cold Temperatures and Wind Chill

Wind chill indicates how cold people and animals feel while outside. According to the National Weather Service, wind chill is not the actual temperature but rather how the wind and cold feels on exposed skin based on the rate of heat loss. As the wind increases, heat is carried away from the body at a rapid pace, driving down skin temperature and eventually the body’s internal temperature. Therefore, the wind makes it feel much colder.

If you are going to be outside, the American Red Cross encourages you to:

  • Dress appropriately. 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 temperatures are not that low.
  • Dress in layers to adjust to changing conditions. Avoid overdressing or overexertion, which can lead to heat illness.
  • Wear a hat, preferably one covering your ears, because 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 help maintain your footing in ice and snow.
  • After coming inside, immediately get out of wet clothes 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.

Frostbite and Hypothermia

According to the National Weather Service, frostbite is damage to body tissue caused by extreme cold. A wind chill of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit will cause frostbite in just 30 minutes. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and a white or pale appearance in extremities, such as fingers, toes, earlobes or the tip of the nose. If symptoms are detected, get medical help immediately. If you must wait for help, slowly rewarm affected areas. However, if the person is also showing signs of hypothermia, warm the body core before the extremities.

Hypothermia is a condition brought on when the body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Warning signs include uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness and apparent exhaustion. Take your temperature and if it is below 95 degrees, seek medical attention immediately.

Fairfax County’s emergency homeless shelters have additional capacity during winter months to take in people overnight who are at risk of hypothermia. More information about the shelters is available online at If you see someone at night who is unsheltered and you think could be at risk of hypothermia, call the county’s non-emergency phone line at 703-691-2131, TTY 711.

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 shoveling.

Emergency Supply Kit

Because 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.
  • One gallon of water per person, per day.
  • A battery-powered radio (people with hearing impairments should consider signing up for the Community Emergency Alert Network – CEAN – at and obtaining a cell phone with text messaging capacity to receive CEAN messages).
  • A flashlight with extra batteries.
  • A first-aid kit.
  • An extra supply of prescription or over-the-counter medicines.
  • A plan for those with special needs who may need to come stay in your home because they lost utilities from 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 Fairfax County’s Emergency Information Web page,

People With Disabilities

People with disabilities also may want to take extra care during the cold weather season. Some disabling conditions may limit sensory abilities and the ability to maintain body heat, so be particularly vigilant about staying warm when you are out in low temperatures. 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. It’s also a good idea to carry a cell phone.

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 to use 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 traveling 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.

Additional tips for people with disabilities:

  • If you receive home-based care (e.g., homecare attendant, home health aide, visiting nurse service), include caregivers in developing your plan and familiarize yourself with your homecare agency’s emergency plan.
  • If you are blind or have a visual disability, store a talking or Braille clock or large-print timepiece with extra batteries.
  • If you have a pet or service animal, also plan for his or her needs (e.g., temporary relocation, transportation, etc.).
  • If you rely on home-delivered meals, always stock nonperishable food at home in case meal deliveries are suspended during an emergency.
  • Have a plan with your doctor that addresses emergency prescription refills, if possible.
  • If you receive dialysis or other medical treatments, find out your provider’s emergency plan, including where your back-up site is located.
  • If you rely on medical equipment that requires electric power, contact your medical supply company for information regarding a back-up power source such as a battery. Follow the manufacturer's directions when installing the equipment and the battery back-up. If you use a portable generator for emergency power, follow the manufacturer’s directions for safe operation, and check with local fire and building officials for regulations governing generator and fuel use. Ask your utility company if the medical equipment qualifies you to be listed as a life-sustaining equipment customer. Dominion Power customers can call 1-888-667-3000, TTY 711 for more information.
  • If you rely on oxygen, talk to your vendor about emergency replacements.

Home Heating

Fairfax County residents who face an emergency heating situation this winter may be able to access assistance from a federally funded program locally administered by the county’s Department of Family Services.

The Crisis Assistance program helps eligible low-income households in emergency situations by providing primary heat security deposits and funding the repair or replacement of heating equipment. The Crisis Assistance program application period began Nov. 1, and closes on Monday, March 17, 2008. To apply, 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 to you, 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 Hwy (Rt. 1)
    703-704-6353, TTY 703-799-3435.

The Department of Family Services offers extended office hours for public assistance services at all of the offices listed above, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays, and from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Fridays. Applications are also available on the Web from the Virginia Department of Social Services at

Fire Safety

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the winter holidays mean more cooking, home decorating, entertaining and an increased risk of fire from heating equipment. The NFPA reports that Christmas Day is the peak day of the year for reported home candle fires. Further, NFPA reports that Christmas trees were the items first ignited in an estimated average of 210 reported U.S. home structure fires per year in 2002-2005. Almost half (48 percent) of the home Christmas tree fires were caused by some type of electrical failure or malfunction. Twenty-seven percent of the Christmas tree fires resulted from a heat source placed too close to the tree. Five percent resulted from someone, typically a child, playing with fire or other heat source.

Smoke alarms are required by law and the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department also recommends having carbon monoxide alarms. Both alarms should be checked monthly and cleaned, dusted and vacuumed on a regular basis. Batteries should be replaced once every year, however lithium or long-lasting batteries don’t need to be replaced but once every 10 years.  The alarms themselves should be replaced every 10 years. 

It is recommended that there be at least one smoke alarm on every level of the home. 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.

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 hazards 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.

Residents are also encouraged to use the following safety tips when decorating trees or using lights this year:

  • When purchasing an artificial tree, look for the label “Fire Resistant.” Although this label does not mean the tree won’t catch fire, it does indicate the tree is more resistant to burning.
  • When purchasing a live tree, check for freshness. A fresh tree is green, needles are hard to pull from branches and do not break when bent between your fingers. The bottom of a fresh tree is sticky with resin, and when tapped on the ground, the tree should not lose many needles.
  • When setting up a tree at home, place it away from fireplaces and radiators. Because heated rooms dry out live trees rapidly, be sure to keep the stand filled with water. Place the tree out of the way of traffic, and do not block doorways.
  • Use only non-combustible or flame-resistant materials to trim a tree. Choose tinsel or artificial icicles of plastic or nonleaded metals. Leaded materials are hazardous if ingested by children.
  • In homes with small children, take special care to avoid sharp or breakable decorations, keep trimmings with small removable parts out of the reach of children who could swallow or inhale small pieces, and avoid trimmings that resemble candy or food that may tempt a child to eat them.
  • Indoors or outside, use only lights that have been tested for safety by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as UL or ETL/ITSNA.
  • Use only newer lights that have thicker wiring and are required to have safety fuses to prevent the wires from overheating.
  • Check each set of lights, new or old, for broken or cracked sockets, frayed or bare wires, or loose connections. Throw out damaged sets.
  • If using an extension cord, make sure it is rated for the intended use.
  • Never use electric lights on a metallic tree. The tree can become charged with electricity from faulty lights, and a person touching a branch could be electrocuted.
  • When using lights outdoors, check labels to be sure they have been certified for outdoor use and plug them into only ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protected receptacles.
  • Turn off all holiday lights when you go to bed or leave the house. The lights could short out and start a fire.

Alternative Heating Source Safety

If families use alternative heating sources during the cold 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 3 feet of clearance between your alternative heat source and anything that could burn.
  • Always turn off alternative heat sources before leaving or going to bed and do not leave children or pets unattended around any heating source. This includes extinguishing the embers in the fireplace – and 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.
  • 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.

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 a water pipe freezes, never try to thaw it 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).

Clearing Snow and Debris

Residents and businesses can help alleviate potential flooding and protect the environment this winter season by keeping the openings of storm drains clear of snow and debris.  Simple steps include:

  • Remove snow and debris, such as leaves, grass clippings and trash from the outside openings of storm drains.
  • Avoid piling snow in front of a storm drain.
  • Avoid blowing leaves and cut grass into the street, which may travel to a storm drain in rain and melted snow.
  • Be sure to read labels to avoid overuse and misuse of fertilizer; properly maintain cars to prevent oil leaks; and pick up pet waste and dispose of it in a trash can. These pollutants may be collected by rain and melted snow and travel to storm drains, which lead to streams, or in some cases, first to a stormwater management facility and then a stream.

If a storm drain opening is blocked, residents can remove the debris from the outside opening. At no time, however, should a resident attempt to enter a storm drain to remove debris. Residents can also call Fairfax County Stormwater Management, 703-934-2800, TTY 711, or the Virginia Department of Transportation at 703-383-8368, TTY 711, to report a blocked storm drain. Property owners, however, are responsible for driveway culverts and bridges that are part of the driveway structure and are not public storm drainage system structures. Storm drains outside rights-of-way and easements are privately maintained by the property owner.  For more information about storm drainage and stormwater facilities, visit For more information about protecting and restoring streams, visit

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 (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, by law, 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. For bedding, use hay or other non-absorbent materials that will remain dry during inclement weather. Other tips to keep pets safe include:

  • Don’t let dogs off their leash or they may get lost and suffer from cold-weather related problems.
  • Snow and salt should be removed from pets’ paws immediately to avoid burning the paw pads. Use a pet-safe de-icing salt.
  • 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.

Holiday Safety Reminders

The holiday season is a time of joy for many; nevertheless residents are encouraged to take extra precautions. Be extra vigilant during the holiday season and keep the following tips in mind.

Personal Safety When Shopping

  • Avoid shopping alone.
  • Carry keys, cash and credit cards separate from each other and constantly pay attention to your surroundings.
  • Avoid carrying large amounts of cash and if possible, avoid carrying a purse. Use a fanny pack or deep pockets in clothing to carry what you need. Limit the number of credit cards that you carry. If you have to carry a purse, carry it close to your body and always zipped or snapped.
  • Be aware of strangers “accidentally” bumping into you. Pickpockets use this as a diversion.
  • Leave the mall/store well before closing time. This way, there is a greater assurance you will walk out with other people. There is safety in numbers.

Home Safety

  • Do not leave the boxes from your holiday gifts (e.g., computers, televisions, etc.) at the curb as this advertises the contents of your home to potential thieves.
  • If you order gifts to be delivered to your home, ensure someone is there to accept the package. Have a trusted neighbor keep a lookout for the packages.
  • If you go out of town for the holidays, make sure you ask a trusted neighbor, friend or family member to check the house at lease once a day and pick up mail and newspapers. Provide your contact number in case of emergency.
  • Keep garage doors closed and be sure the door from the garage into the home is secured.
  • Make sure your home address is not showing on your luggage.

For more holiday safety tips from the Fairfax County Police Department, visit, or call 703-246-2253, TTY 703-204-2264.

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 Fairfax Water can be found at Fire safety information is available at

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

Additional information on getting involved with emergency preparedness and response volunteer programs in the county is available online at the Fairfax County Citizens Corps Web site,


For more news and information, visit

Fairfax County is committed to nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in all county programs, services and activities. 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