Be Aware, Be Informed, Be Prepared: Getting Ready for Winter

Weather forecasters for the Washington, D.C., area tell us that this winter may bring extreme cold temperatures and significant amounts of snow depending on the Arctic Oscillation and its relation with the La Nina weather pattern (colder water temps in the Pacific Ocean).

The winter months are typically some of the busiest for first responders in the mid-Atlantic region. Emergency-response crews are confronted with fires associated with such heat sources as fireplaces, woodstoves, space heaters and other heating equipment, as well as fires from the usual assortment of cooking, electrical and a host of other causes.

Other dangers and hazards associated with snow and ice, carbon monoxide poisoning, slips and falls, electrical hazards, and more also become more frequent. Most emergencies can occur quickly and without warning, and while weather conditions are often predicted, the consequences of these conditions and the human response are not.

Fire and EMS departments throughout the National Capital Region collectively and throughout the year work to tell residents and visitors that the best way to keep themselves and their families safe is to be prepared before an emergency strikes, natural or manmade. However, at this time of year, firefighters aren’t just taking this message to our communities; it’s also a time when most departments are preparing themselves and their equipment for the coming winter season.

It seems that those residing in the Washington area are a bit notorious when it comes to how they deal with winter. Regardless of whether the reaction is panic or reckless arrogance, firefighters have to deal with them and the weather elements in keeping our neighbors safe and secure. As we know, fire and emergency medical first responders are the often-critical services that keep going when all or most else shuts down around us for whatever reason.

With so many different socioeconomic groups, commuters, tourists, regional attitudes, politics and so on in the National Capital Region, you would think getting our collective messages out would be difficult. The message may come in many different shapes or forms, from different jurisdictions or from various departments, maybe even different languages. But the message is clear: “Be aware. Be informed. Be prepared.”

Fire chiefs, safety educators, firefighters and public information officers have already begun the battle cry: Get ready now. We encourage all households to take four steps to prepare for an emergency:

  • Get Informed – Get the official information you need during an emergency.
  • Make a Plan – Make a plan for you and your family to be prepared for all hazards.
  • Make an Emergency Go Kit – Make an emergency kit that can last at least 72 hours after a disaster.
  • Be Aware – Be aware of your surroundings, including the weather, and report hazardous conditions to the proper authorities.

Of course, there are many ways for local emergency-service departments to raise awareness, engage in public-education efforts, build media relations and use such technology as reverse 9-1-1 when dealing with the wide spectrum of winter threats ahead.

Among other mechanisms, one tool that has worked particularly well for the D.C. Fire & EMS Department for providing timely updates and other safety information has been the use of social media—in particular, Twitter.

Daily, our Twitter account (twitter.com/dcfireems) provides situational awareness and guidance to followers in Washington. In just several months, we have doubled our number of followers to about 10,500—the most of any city agency.

Of course, in a more traditional sense, the information available on Twitter is often the foundation of broadcast and mass-media coverage of events and activities, as well. Combined, our reach for promoting safety messages and other guidance during an emergency to those who want it is extensive. Several other jurisdictions in the National Capital region, including the Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, Md., fire and EMS departments, have also had a great deal of success with their social-media platforms, as well.

Is social media for you as you prepare your community for winter?

Determine the need and examine the purpose. Does it fit with the National Response Framework? “The local senior elected or appointed elected official (mayor, administrator, executive) is responsible for ensuring the public safety and welfare of residents.”

In our case, Twitter by itself is not a strategy. The many new social media sites serve only as tools, not our purpose; the technology is secondary.

Remember, it’s all about sociology—not technology—and maintaining relationships and connecting to people if we are to be effective when advising the community.

So be aware, be informed and be prepared this winter.

Pete Piringer is the PIO for Washington (D.C.) Fire & EMS.

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