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Ready, Set: Winter!

Even in an age of cell phones and instant everything, if you're not prepared for the worst in your car or your home, you may get left in the cold.

"It's the most common mistake people make. They figure if there car is stuck off the road, they'll just call for help, and help will come," said Officer Gary Mrotek with the Muskego Police Department. He also teaches emergency preparedness and response classes through Community Emergency Response (CERT) programs.

The fatal flaw in that 'instant response' logic according to Mrotek is that someone may answer at the other end of the line, but the answer may be that help will take a long time.

So, the mantra is 'shelter in place,' and it's worth just a small amount of time and organization to give yourself better odds in surviving in your car or in your home during an extended period of power outage. Keeping an emergency kit in both places will provide a little peace of mind and require a list of easily found items. 

What to pack for your vehicle:

  • Flashlight - preferrably an LED as they last much longer, and one that includes an optional flashing light
  • Whistle - yelling takes energy, and if your car slides off a remote road, it may not be noticed. Blowing on a whistle is louder and uses much less energy than your voice.
  • Mittens—your fingers will stay much warmer in mittens than gloves. Handwarmer packs are also a good idea, and the more the better to place inside your jacket if you need it.
  • Knit hat and boots if you're not one to wear them usually. Remember it's not how fashionable you look, so raid Goodwill or the dollar section to collect these items in your kit.
  • Votive candle/sterno and matches - believe it or not, that small flame in a vehicle with the window open just a crack will help to warm the environment.
  • Energy food: peanut butter is good, energy bars are even better
  • Survival wrap: a mylar blanket that folds into an envelope-sized pack can be used to retain as much as 80 percent of your body heat
  • Water - keep a few bottles in the car; if you don't have bottles, collect snow and let it melt in the car, not in your mouth. Mrotek said the process of 'mouth melting' can only serve to lower your body temperature. If you have a way to collect the frozen water, let it melt first before drinking.
  • Enough for everyone: if you usually travel with a passenger, double the number of items to make sure you're both comfortable.
  • More items are available on Ready Wisconsin's website.

Other things to be aware of in the event you're stranded in your vehicle:

  • Stay with the vehicle unless you're absolutely sure you can reach shelter in minutes. It provides the best protection against the elements.
  • Use your kit as a beacon: Mrotek uses a large strip of reflective tape to place near the road for other motorists (and police) to notice.
  • When you're driving anywhere in inclement weather, tell people where you are going, and the route you'll be taking. In the event you slide off the road or are in an accident, it's possible your cell phone can be jarred loose from the console or your purse and be unreachable. Having someone 'on the outside' knowing your plans increases your chances of being found, sooner.
  • If your car is stuck in the snow and you don't have sand or kitty litter, try wedging a car mat under the tires to move you forward.
  • You can run a vehicle in the snow if the exhaust is clear, but only do so for about 10 minutes every 1/2 hour

Stranded also doesn't have to mean alone. Not long ago a massive back up on I-90 left motorists in more than 70 cars stuck for as long as seven hours. If you're sharing such misery, share resources as well by offering to share your vehicle to the person next to you, and vice versa. It extends the ability to stay warm, especially if you're moving from one running, heated car to another.

Inside your home, many people can be protected against cold temps for as long as a week because of modern insulation, but power outages can also mean you're out of water or a means to cook.

Here too, a widespread outage could mean many days of no power in subfreezing temperatures, and unless you can stay with relatives or in a hotel for that time, you've got to shelter in place. Having a kit containing some of the same things in your home is also helpful because it puts needed items all in one place, and not all over the house in places you can't remember where you left them.

Mrotek said the concern for frozen water pipes isn't warranted unless you are aware of shallow or exposed pipes leading into your home. Covering those ahead of time with a styrofoam shroud often keeps them warm enough to keep the water flowing. 

Additional tips:

  • If you have a hot water tank, you have a ready reservoir of water. The spigot located at the bottom of the tank can be tapped to keep you hydrated. On the average 1 gallon per person, per day is what emergency preparedness professionals recommend.
  • Have a tankless water heater? Stock up on water in clean containers. If you're worried about bacteria developing over time, Mrotek says to shake the container before drinking from it. If bubbles form and persist at the top, don't drink it. Otherwise, it should be fine for consumption
  • Ready-to-eat food should be on hand, just in case you didn't get to the grocery store.
  • Check your gas lines outside. In case of extreme cold, settling ground can break these pipes. Mrotek said there were three cases during the summer drought of gas leaks caused by the settling ground. Before that could happen, know where your gas shut off valves are located outside at the meter and inside near the furnace.
  • Get to know your neighbors: establish a network to share resources. If you don't have a generator, your neighbor might. And likewise, you may have other resources that can be shared to ensure everyone's comfort.
  • Got Meds? Refill your prescriptions 4 to 5 days ahead of time so a 24 to 48-hour shut down of your town won't mean you're placing yourself into a crisis situation

Ultimately prepared means protected, Mrotek said, and keeping a network of resources can keep you on good terms with your neighbors as well as more likely to survive any situation.

For more cold-weather safety ideas, check out this list,

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