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How to Keep Citizens Informed when Temperatures Drop

If your community is in a climate that will be seeing dipping temperatures this winter, then it’s time to start planning your citizen communications. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, winter cold results in more than twice as many annual deaths as does summer heat. Cold weather also accounts for more deaths than floods, severe storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and lightening combined. Of the approximate 2,000 U.S. lives lost between 2006 and 2010 due to extreme weather conditions, 63 percent of those deaths are attributed to exposure to excessive natural cold and/or hypothermia. This winter, when extreme cold temperatures inflict dangerous conditions upon your community, be prepared with a communication strategy that will keep citizens warm and safe.

When it comes to communicating cold weather information, it is important to use accurate, and consistent terminology. Follow the same conventions used by the National Weather Service (NWS) by using the following weather terms.

  • Blizzard – Sustained winds or frequent gusts of 35 miles per hour or greater, considerable falling, and/or blowing snow reducing visibility frequently to 1⁄4 mile or less for a period of three hours or more.
  • Winter Storm – Hazardous winter weather conditions that pose a threat to life and/or property. The generic term “winter storm” is used for a combination of two or more of the following winter weather events; heavy snow, freezing rain, sleet, and strong winds
  • Winter Weather – Hazardous winter weather conditions that will cause a significant inconvenience. If caution is not exercised, the conditions may result in a potential threat to life and/or property.
  • Ice Storm – Heavy ice accumulations ranging from 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 inch or more.
  • Freezing Rain – Light to moderate ice accumulations with amounts between a trace and 1/4 inch.
  • Freezing Drizzle – Drizzle causing light accumulations of ice with amounts from a trace to 1/4 inch.
  • Freezing Fog – Widespread dense fog reducing visibility to less than 1⁄4 mile that occurs in a sub-zero environment, leaving a thin glazing of ice.
  • Lake-Effect Snow – Very heavy lake-effect snowfall amounts of generally 6 inches in 12 hours or less, or 8 inches in 24 hours or less. Lake-effect snow squalls can significantly reduce visibilities with little notice.
  • Wind Chill – Extreme wind chills that are life-threatening. The criteria for wind chill temperatures vary significantly over different county warning areas.
  • Heavy Snow – Heavy snowfall amounts are imminent. The criteria for amounts vary significantly over different county warning areas.
  • Blowing Snow – Sustained winds or frequent gusts of 25 to 35 miles per hour accompanied by falling and blowing snow, occasionally reducing visibility to 1⁄4 mile or less.
  • Extreme Cold – Dangerously low temperatures are possible for a prolonged period. Frostbite and hypothermia are likely if exposed to these temperatures.
  • Freeze – Widespread sheltered temperatures are forecast to be at or below 32 °F in the next 12 to 24 hours during the locally defined growing season. A freeze may occur with or without frost.
  • Hard Freeze – Widespread temperatures at or below 28 °F during the growing season. A hard freeze may occur with or without frost.

When communicating the threat of extreme weather, use the following terminology:

  • Watch – A chance this condition will happen and usually covers a large geographical area for a lengthy time.
  • Warning – Noted weather conditions are already occurring or are likely to occur. Citizens should take proper protective measures. Warnings are usually issued for much smaller geographical areas and usually for shorter more definite time periods.
  • Advisories ­– The expected weather condition has a pretty good chance of occurring, even a likely chance of occurring, but typically an advisory is used for less severe type of weather conditions such as wind or freezing rain.

To ensure citizens are informed about the threat of cold weather, follow these best practices for communicating local winter weather alerts:

Share Warnings Early and Often

Stay informed on trending weather using national and local weather resources. Even though the weather is unpredictable, if there is a threat of potential extreme cold, share the information with your community early and often. Keep citizens apprised as news and conditions change, even if what you need to inform them is that conditions have improved and that the cold weather watch/advisory/warning has been lifted.

Use All Available Communication Channels

Do not assume citizens will learn about the impending cold from other news sources. It is the responsibility of civic leaders to help ensure citizens are informed before, during, and after any severe winter weather episode. Post communications to your civic website and your social media accounts.

Distribute Actionable Information and Instructions

Include in your communications links to more in-depth citizen safety information, such as the location of local cold weather shelters, and the phone numbers for local emergency responders and utility providers.

Utilize a Government Emergency Notification Solution

Weather patterns can change quickly, and citizens need to be informed as soon as possible. To shorten the amount of time it takes to distribute news to all available citizen communication channels, implement a government emergency notification system. With one step, you can distribute weather warnings on your civic website, your social media accounts, and you can send messages to subscribed citizens via text message/SMS, voicemail, and email. Such a solution will minimize the risk that any citizens will remain uninformed and in danger.

Integrate your communications with IPAWS

The Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) allows you to communicate emergency information to citizens, even if they haven’t signed-up to receive notifications, or are following your community on social media. IPAWS uses a variety of trusted and effective federal communication channels to distribute your message to the public during an emergency. IPAWS reaches citizens with your emergency message using such channels as:

  • The emergency alert system (EAS) which broadcasts to AM/FM radios and public televisions
  • Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) sent to capable wireless devices
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio alerts
  • Local sirens
  • Digital signs
  • Other local and unique systems

For more information about emergency alerts and how CivicReady can help you communicate to your community, check out civicready.com.


Jessica Marabella

Jessica Marabella

Jessica holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Rochester, and a Master of Arts degree in Advertising from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She has over ten years of experience in communications with a focus on writing in the digital marketing space.