HAP Blog

Back to Basics: 5 Winter Weather Reminders

Prep your EM team for success this winter

November 30, 2022

It is that time of year where we put away our severe thunderstorm maps and start taking a look at the winter weather radar.

Here in Pennsylvania, we know a single storm can dump a few feet in one region of the state and deliver only a slight rainfall in another just a few miles away. For emergency managers, that means we have to be ready to adjust for conditions that change in an instant.

As we prepare for harsh weather, here are a five reminders to help your emergency management (EM) team stay ahead this winter.

1. Follow the right forecasts

Remember to obtain your weather forecasts from reputable sources such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

There are many independent, self-proclaimed forecasters, especially on social media, who will publish images of the GFS or Euro model 10 days away and release snowfall totals. Know these are often inaccurate and unreliable.

Historically, a seven-day forecast is right about 80 percent of the time, and a five-day 90 percent of the time. These forecasts don’t offer much in the way of details, mostly predicting if it will be sunny, cloudy, raining, or snowing. Typically, they won’t provide snowfall totals, and if it’s five to seven days out, I wouldn’t count on their accumulation predictions.

2. A thin line between snow and rain

Winter weather systems are notorious for being unpredictable. An exaggerated example of this happened recently during Buffalo’s November snowstorm. Orchard Park saw more than 80 inches of snow while an area 15 miles north saw just 30 inches. Areas in far northwest Pennsylvania are well aware of this variability due to lake-effect snow.

The difference between rain and snow can come down to the thinnest of margins—sometimes called the 540 line. The line determines whether we’ll see rain or snow, but it’s often fickle to measure.

Sometimes the snow, sleet, or ice may fall sooner than anticipated if the system moves faster or if the atmosphere is colder or warmer. In short-term forecasts, we also see heavy bursts of snow or the development of snow squalls, which often cause multi-vehicle accidents on the highways.

3. Sleet vs. freezing rain

These precipitation types shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sleet is frozen precipitation that falls as ice pellets and accumulates as snow would. Freezing rain falls as rain, and freezes when it makes contact with roads, trees, or power lines.

In many cases, freezing rain can cause more serious issues than sleet, as even the slightest bit can make roadways impassible, cause widespread power outages, and damage trees.

4. Watches, warnings, and advisories

The National Weather Service will issue alerts based on the timing and type of weather event as well as potential impacts of the forecasted precipitation. Usually you will see a winter storm watch when winter weather could lead to high impact within the next 48 hours.

A weather watch does not guarantee significant winter weather will occur in your area, but it is possible. When the storm system gets closer and is more likely, we will either see a warning or advisory issued. Make sure your team has a strong understanding about these advisories and plan accordingly.

5. How to prepare

Ensuring the safety of your hospital staff is key. Among the important reminders to take action:

  • Have essential items in your car at all times (extra food and water, blankets, jumper cables, etc.). Having a kit at home is just as important.
  • Start your planning early to determine operational cycles, especially when a warning is issued.
  • Prepare your emergency operations center and test any relevant equipment, including backup communications devices.
  • Keep staff informed about forecast updates and share planning with department leaders.
  • Develop a winter weather response plan so your facility is properly staffed and to avoid unsafe travel to and from your facility.

These are just a few ideas to get ready. Winter hasn’t arrived quite yet, but you’ll be glad you took action before it does.

For more information about your winter emergency plans, contact me or HAP’s Emergency Management team for more information.


Please login or register to post comments.