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Winter Weather Preparedness & Response

By Don Schmidt, Preparedness, LLC:

Arctic freeze, heavy snow, high winds, blizzard conditions, freezing rain, and flooding are winter’s challenges to maintaining a safe and operational facility. Before winter weather watches and warnings are broadcast, prepare your facility and your employees. Preparations now can save costly damage to facilities and equipment and maintain business operations.

A snowplow on a Denver street. Heavy snow, high winds, and reduced visibility during a blizzard create traffic hazards for employees and can impact inbound supplies and outbound deliveries. (Photo credit: FEMA)

The impact of major snowstorms, blizzards, and ice storms on business operations can be significant. Direct costs of property damage from freeze-ups and structural failures and the cost snow removal are quantifiable. Loss of sales when manufacturing and distribution operations are shut down due to loss of utilities or supply chain disruption are harder to quantify.

Facilities are especially vulnerable to freeze-ups when planned reductions in production, shutdowns, and vacations occur. Reduced use of space heating, reduced or no heat from production equipment, and few or no personnel on-site to monitor temperature and respond to freeze conditions contribute to losses.

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Winter Preparedness
Winter preparedness begins before the watches and warnings are issued. Inspections and maintenance of buildings and equipment, arranging contracts for emergency fuel delivery and snow removal, and developing and updating plans take time.

Heavy snow and daily thaw and freeze cycles create icicles. Although beautiful, they can be injure people and damage property when they fall from buildings. (Photo: Preparedness, LLC)

Inspect all buildings beginning from the roof and check to ensure roof drains, gutters, and downspouts are clear. Clean accumulations of leaves or other debris that could be swept into and clog drains. Check all roof-mounted equipment to ensure air conditioners, fan housings, antennas, signs, and other equipment are properly anchored and access panels are secure. Check to ensure roof flashing is intact and roof vents are tight.

Excessive snow drifts and rain following heavy snow increase the weight applied to the structure and can cause collapse. Evaluate the structural strength of sections of roofs likely to accumulate heavy snow drifts and water. These areas include intersections of low and high roofs; valleys between two peaked roofs; intersection of roof and roof mounted equipment. Look for bent, deflected, or twisted structural members and decks that might indicate susceptibility to overload.

Check that sufficient heat will be available in buildings protected by wet pipe sprinkler systems and other piping and process equipment that is subject to freezing. Identify and inspect piping that may be located above ceilings or beneath floors that may be more vulnerable.

Inspect outdoor, water-filled, and water-cooled equipment to ensure it is protected from freezing. Check process lines and instrumentation and ensure lubricants are suitable for low temperatures. Check out-buildings, steam traps, and liquid drains. Verify yard hydrants and pump test headers have drained properly.

Drain condensate from dry pipe sprinkler system low points and inspect the pitch of sprinkler piping to identify and drain sections that may have trapped water. Ensure that heating equipment in sprinkler valve closets is working properly. Use approved heat trace on exposed pipes that cannot be drained. Check heaters in fire pump houses and suction/gravity tank heaters as well. Check gravity and suction tanks and flush circulating heaters and piping and remove any scale or sediment. Place thermometers in these area, so untrained staff can record periodic temperature checks.

According to insurer Hartford Steam Boiler, cast iron boiler losses increase as the heating season starts, and the highest failure rate occurs in mid-January. Ensure annual maintenance and repairs have been done, verify set points, and monitor operation with a boiler log.

[Download the Preparedness Bulletin, including Winter Weather Preparedness & Response, and check out many others.]

Preparations for Arctic Freeze and Winter Storms
Determine resource needs to protect the facility and handle storm cleanup. Assign responsibility for facility preparation, surveillance, snow removal, and emergency response. Ensure all snow removal contractors are available, equipment is serviced, and fuel supplies are on hand.

Review schedules to identify buildings or areas that will be shut down or unoccupied. Assess the need to keep heat-producing equipment running or provide supplemental heat to maintain temperatures safely above freezing. Review plans for loss of heat, electricity, fuel (heating and generator), safe shutdown of production lines and processing equipment; and protection system impairments.

Emergency generators must be inspected, tested, and maintained to ensure reliability. Fuel tank capacity and minimum fill level should enable expected runtime. (Photo: Preparedness, LLC)

Test emergency generators under a full load at least annually as recommended by national standard, NFPA 110, and as recommended by manufacturers. Start and run the generator before the extreme cold or storm approaches. Maintain generator fuel tanks ¾ full. Ensure supplier fuel deliveries.

Encourage employees to heed winter weather warnings. Provide information to employees about the dangers of severe winter weather, how to prepare for an extended power outage, and the emergency supplies that should be kept at home and in their cars. The dangers of, and steps to prevent, carbon monoxide poisoning from improper location and use of portable generators, injury from falling trees and slips and falls on ice, electrocution from downed power lines, and frostbite and hypothermia from exposure to extreme cold should be communicated.

Precautions when Extreme Cold is Forecast
Monitor National Weather Service and local government advisories.

Maintain adequate heat in all buildings and enclosures with piping or equipment subject to freezing. This may require turning up the heat to overcome lack of insulation or the lack of heat given off when equipment is shut down.

Inspect exterior windows and doors to ensure they are intact and close securely.

Monitor temperatures in areas with water pipes to detect low temperatures—especially those not normally occupied. Have security guards or staff check for low temperatures, open doors, cracked or broken windows, and other openings that can allow the cold to enter. Ensure fire pump houses and dry pipe valve enclosures are properly heated.

Check all sprinkler risers daily. If dry pipe sprinkler air compressors are operating more frequently than usual, inspect the system for signs of freeze-up including distorted or leaking sprinkler heads.

Use only approved space heaters to provide temporary heating. Kerosene and propane heaters should only be used if permitted and in supervised areas where adequate ventilation and fire protection are available. Select units with tip-over shutoff sensors. Locate heaters away from combustibles and protected from moving objects and tip over. Prohibit fueling of operating or hot units. Provide trained staff to monitor operation and fire watch.

If heat is lost and pipes freeze, do not use torches to thaw frozen pipes. Shutdown and drain piping and equipment subject to freezing. Follow insurer and fire code required impairment precautions if sprinkler systems freeze.

Precautions During Winter Storms

  • Monitor National Weather Service and local government advisories. Take precautions for arctic freeze as extreme cold often follows winter storms.
  • Keep driveways clear for emergency vehicle access. Coordinate with snow removal contractors or Public Works as needed. Clear the exterior of exit doors to allow for emergency egress. Shovel areas around sprinkler valves and fire hydrants to allow emergency access.
  • Clear roof drains of ice dams to allow melting snow to drain. Clear exterior down spouts of snow or ice buildup at outlets.
  • Check roofs for heavy snow loads. Stay alert for the beginning of ponding-deflection cycles. As snow compresses, it absorbs rainwater and the increased weight on the roof will create depressions where water will accumulate and not drain. Often this condition worsens and leads to roof collapse.
  • Remove dangerous snow loads if deemed safe. Remove snow from standing seam metal roofs in strips starting at the peak to the eaves alternating side to side to assure the roof load is maintained in balance.
  • Maintain awareness of surface water flooding caused by poor street drainage. Direct surface water away from the building and clear storm drains to allow water drainage.

Safety During and After the Storm

  • Stay away from downed utility wires and always assume a downed power line is live. Dial 9‑1‑1 to report downed power lines and gas leaks.
  • Stay off streets and roads until they are clear of snow. Be aware that pedestrians may be walking, and children playing, in the streets.
  • Monitor employees removing snow to prevent overexertion; require frequent breaks. During extremely cold weather, monitor exposed workers for signs of frostbite and hypothermia.
  • Monitor employees or contractors on rooftops and inform them of skylights and other hazards.
  • Check emergency generators and direct vent gas furnace systems to verify that air intakes and exhaust vents are clear, and exhaust does not enter buildings.
  • Clear entrances and exits of snow and treat to prevent ice accumulation. Exits should be clear to a safe location away from the building. Dig out fire hydrants to provide access for fire apparatus.

Download the Winter Weather Preparedness & Response Preparedness Bulletin  and check out many others.

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About the Author: Donald L. Schmidt, ARM, CBCP, MCP, CBCLA, CEM®, is the CEO of Preparedness, LLC a consulting firm specializing in risk assessment, prevention/mitigation, emergency management, business continuity, and crisis management. He is the past chair and current member of the NFPA 1600 Technical Committee and member of ISO 292 Security and resilience committee, ASTM E54 committee on Homeland Security, published author of numerous books, and instructor for multiple organizations. He can be reached at

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