Each year, during the first week of November, Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management and local officials recognize Winter Hazard Awareness Week, which is sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety in collaboration with the National Weather Service and other state, federal, and nonprofit agencies.

The focus of this week is to help Minnesota residents minimize the risks of winter. With our early winter weather and knowing what is coming in the next few months, we would like to share this information with you to help you be prepared for the winter months ahead. Of course, the best way to avoid the hazards is to stay warm and cozy indoors, but it’s tough to stay cooped up for months -- and even staying indoors for long periods carries risks. Problems can arise with indoor air and fire risks increase dramatically in the winter. While we know you are used to this weather and know how to handle it from living here, we’d like to share these reminders.

Winter storms and weather

Winter is the signature season of Minnesota. It's normally a long season of cold temperatures, snow and ice that can last from November through April. In order to ensure a safe and enjoyable winter, it is critical to be informed and aware of the potential risks and hazards associated with winter weather and how to avoid them. Listen to a NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio and television for the latest winter storm warnings, watches and advisories. The National Weather Service issues outlooks, watches, warnings and advisories for all winter weather hazards. Here’s what they mean and what to do.

  • OUTLOOK: Winter storm conditions are possible in the next 2-5 days.Stay tuned to local media for updates.

  • WATCH: Winter storm conditions are possible within the next 36-48 hours. Prepare now!

  • WARNING: Life-threatening severe winter conditions have begun or will begin within 24 hours. Act now.

  • ADVISORY: Winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous. If you are cautious, these situations should not be life threatening. Electronic equipment is available to receive weather information: NOAA Weather Radio, radio, television and cellphone.

Outdoor winter safety

It is important to take many factors into consideration when planning to be outside this winter. The most obvious is thin ice considerations. When is ice safe? There really is no sure answer and ice is never considered 100% safe. You can't judge the strength of ice just by its appearance, age, thickness, temperature or if the ice is covered with snow. Strength is based on all these factors. In addition, the depth of water under the ice, size of the water body, water chemistry and currents, distribution of load on the ice and local climate conditions all play a factor. Children and those with special needs may also require additional assistance during the winter months. Pay attention to frostbite, which is the freezing of skin and extremities on the body. The nose, cheeks, ears, fingers and toes (your extremities) are the most commonly affected. Everyone is susceptible, even people who have been living in cold climates for most of their lives.

Winter home and fire safety

In the winter months, our heating, lighting, cooking and holiday activities increase dramatically -- and with them the risk of residential fires. Wood burning stoves are growing in popularity and space heaters are being used more. All these methods of heating may be acceptable -- but without caution, they’re a major contributing factor in residential fires. Holiday decorating goes a long way to help brighten up our wintery days and long nights. Unfortunately, decorations also become a significant hazard, if not used carefully.

Indoor winter safety

Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning can happen at any time of the year, but the danger is greater during the winter when doors and windows stay closed and fireplaces, gas heaters or other fuel burning appliances are in use. In addition, people can also be exposed to deadly CO levels when “warming up” their cars in garages or keeping them running when stuck in snow. Be sure to service your heating systems, install and maintain a CO Detector and never use appliances for heating purposes. Know the symptoms of CO poisoning.

Winter driving

Everyone should be cautious about traveling in extreme winter weather. Cold, snow and ice are demanding on cars, drivers and passengers. Most importantly, extreme winter weather can threaten your life. Build and maintain a winter survival kit for your vehicle. A good working and fully charged cellphone is a valuable tool for drivers who are involved in, or witness, emergency situations. Cellphone users on the road must provide dispatchers with specific information about the emergency. Utilize the 511 Phone Information System, which provides road safety information 24 hours per day. Landline and cellphone users can call 511 for regional and statewide reports on traffic congestion, road and weather conditions, construction work and other obstacles.

Be patient and remember snowplows are working to improve road conditions for your trip. While travelling around a plow, stay at least five car lengths behind the plow, far from the snow cloud. Snowplow operators will pull over when it is safe to do so to allow built-up traffic to pass. Stay alert for snowplows that turn or exit frequently and often with little warning. They may also travel over centerlines or partially in traffic to further improve road conditions. Slow down to a safe speed for current conditions and give yourself plenty of travel time. Snowplows typically move at slower speeds. Buckle up and ensure children are properly secured in the correct child restraint. Avoid unnecessary travel if road conditions are too poor.

If you have specific questions that you would like answered in this column or in person, please feel free to contact me anytime using one of the following methods: by email at tom.burch@co.cass.mn.us; by phone at 218-547-1424 or 800-450-2677; or by mail or in person at the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, 303 Minnesota Ave. W, P.O. Box 1119, Walker, MN, 56484.