Written by Devon Boen
Montana ranks as one of the coldest states in the nation with January and February standing out as two of the coldest months in the year. That being said, it is important for Montana residents to take proactive safety precautions in case of weather-related emergencies.
Winter storms can range from a moderate snow over a few hours to a blizzard with blinding, wind-driven snow that lasts for several days. Some winter storms are large enough to affect several states, while others affect only a single community. Many winter storms are accompanied by dangerously low temperatures and sometimes by strong winds, icing, sleet and freezing rain.
Regardless of the severity of a winter storm, you should be prepared in order to remain safe during these events.
Know the Difference
Winter Storm Outlook - Winter storm conditions are possible in the next two to five days.
Winter Weather Advisory - Winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous. When caution is used, these situations should not be life threatening.
Winter Storm Watch - Winter storm conditions are possible within the next 36 to 48 hours. People in a watch area should review their winter storm plans and stay informed about weather conditions.
Winter Storm Warning - Life-threatening, severe winter conditions have begun or will begin within 24 hours. People in a warning area should take precautions immediately.
Living in a rural area with less than ideal cell-reception puts great importance on having an emergency kit for vehicles. Every vehicle should have blankets, warm clothes (gloves, hat, boots, etc.), a shovel, water and dried food and an ice scraper. These items will give a person the bare minimum protection they would need from the elements in the event of a car accident in a remote area.
Ideally, every car should also have flares to signal for help, a knife, a high quality flashlight, a first aid kit, a small tool kit, a charged cell phone and a cell phone charger.
It can be tempting to leave a vehicle after an accident or after running out of fuel, but this is almost always the wrong choice, especially in the winter.
A car offers warmth and shelter and is easier to find than a single person walking. People should stay with their vehicle and attempt to call for help or seek help from other drivers before looking for alternative solutions. If a person is stranded in their vehicle, they should bundle up and keep their body moving by clapping their hands or stomping their feet to prevent a decrease in circulation.
It there are no flares in the car, a driver can tie a bright piece of clothing or other bright item on the outside of their car to attract attention.
Drivers can run their car periodically to keep it somewhat heated, but it is not recommended to keep the car on continuously.
Getting stranded in a car isn’t the only danger in winter. A winter weather guide on About.com said if a person is simply stranded outside without a vehicle, they should seek any form of shelter immediately and, if that isn’t possible, they should try to start a small fire. If they have no source of fire or the means to make one, they could dig a snow cave which surprisingly would insulate them from the cold.
It also said to stay hydrated, but to melt snow before it is consumed.
Physical effects of cold weather can set in rapidly and kill just as quickly. Frostbite is frozen body tissue and, according to mounteverest.net, occurs mostly in the extremities, like the hands, feet and sometimes the ears and nose.
Sciencedaily.com stated frostbite can set in within minutes if temperatures are below 20 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing 20 mph or more. To prevent it, people should wear hats, gloves and other warm clothing and seek medical attention immediately if they think they may have frostbite. The article said if a person can’t seek medical attention, they should slightly elevate the affected area and remove any wet clothing. They should also put the affected area in warm, not hot, water and be sure not to rub the frostbitten skin since it will make the situation worse.
Frostbite is dangerous, but the real killer is hypothermia. Mayoclinic.com said hypothermia is the process of your body losing heat faster than it can produce and is characterized by a body temperature lower than 95 degrees (normal body temperature is around 98.6). The three degrees might not sound like a lot, but it is more than enough to put a person in serious danger.
The condition can be mild, moderate or severe. It usually becomes severe when a person’s core body temperature has fallen around or below 82 degrees.
Hypothermia can kill a person in just 30 minutes (in a more severe case) so people need to be aware of how to prevent its onset.
All the basics apply, such as wearing a lot of warm layers and staying out of really dangerous temperatures in the first place. Moderate hypothermia involves severe shivering and loss of motor skills, but a person is in serious danger if the violent shivering stops and their skin begins to turn blue because these are signs of severe hypothermia. A person might seem seriously drunk or disoriented when they have hypothermia.
A person who thinks hypothermia is setting in needs to conserve body heat as quickly as possible. Medical attention is essential for a victim of hypothermia, especially in severe cases. According to howstuffworks.com, if there is a delay in medical treatment, a victim needs to be removed from the cold environment or at least out of the wind, stripped of any wet clothing and wrapped in a hypothermic wrap. A hypothermic wrap is one that is multiple layers thick and covers every part of the victim’s body, leaving as little skin exposed as possible, leaving enough of an opening for a clear airway though.
The Red Cross recommends getting ready for a winter storm by putting together winter supply kit.
Winter Supply Kit
Water — at least a three-day supply; one gallon per person per day
Food — at least a three-day supply of non-perishable, easy-to-prepare food
Battery-powered or hand-crank radio (NOAA Weather Radio, if possible)
First aid kit
Medications (seven-day supply) and medical items (hearing aids with extra batteries, glasses, contact lenses, syringes, etc.)
Sanitation and personal hygiene items
Copies of personal documents (medication list and pertinent medical information, proof of address, deed/lease to home, passports, birth certificates, insurance policies)
Cell phone with chargers
Family and emergency contact information
Baby supplies (bottles, formula, baby food, diapers)
Pet supplies (collar, leash, ID, food, carrier, bowl)
Tools/supplies for securing your home
Sand, rock salt or non-clumping kitty litter to make walkways and steps less slippery
Warm coats, gloves or mittens, hats, boots and extra blankets and warm clothing for all household members
Ample alternate heating methods such as fireplaces or wood- or coal-burning stoves
It’s extremely important to stay warm in the winter, but some people have made fatal mistakes trying to do just that. One prime example of this unexpected danger is the use of vent-less propane heaters indoors. Vent-less propane heaters are fine for outdoor use and in a properly ventilated space, but if they are brought in a household without much airflow it will use up all the oxygen in the space and suffocate any people in the area. People can use indoor safe heaters to stay warm throughout the winter.
These are all rudimentary tips but should not be ignored. Putting these into practice could be life-saving in dire and unexpected winter situations.