Winter is here!

While that might not be breaking news, it’s definitely true, especially if seasons are determined by the weather. Ever since Christmas, temperatures haven’t even reached the freezing mark, let alone the “usual” or “average” temperature which is 37 degrees. (Amazing how warm that sounds right about now.)

Residents of the Middlesex East readership area need to be prepared. Thankfully, local police departments and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency have several tips to combat the nearly (or in some cases exactly) sub-zero temperatures.

"Temperatures this low can be extremely dangerous even when you're outdoors for a very short amount of time," Winchester Police Chief Peter MacDonnell said.

Winter in Massachusetts almost always causes periods of extreme cold weather (as residents are witnessing right now). Exposure to cold can cause frostbite or hypothermia and has the potential to become life-threatening. Although anyone can suffer from cold-related health issues, some people are at greater risk than others, such as older adults, young children, those who are sick, and those without adequate shelter.

It’s smart to be prepared. The first thing to do is check the National Weather Service for any potential wind chill advisories or warnings. An advisory indicates wind chills between -15 and -24 degrees for at least three hours. A warning indicates wind chills below -25 degrees for at least three hours.

Make sure you’re set to receive alerts, warnings and public safety information before, during and after emergencies. Make a Family Emergency Plan that addresses the needs of your family and prepares them to safely evacuate or shelter in place. Assemble an emergency kit.

However, don’t just prepare your family, prepare your home, as well. Preparing and strengthening your home can not only protect your property during disasters - it can also add value to your home.

If you have to drive, ensure your vehicle is safe for winter driving and follow safe driving practices, i.e. no tailgating, reduce your speed, watch for children in the roadway if the sidewalks haven’t been plowed, etc.

Make sure your car is properly winterized. Keep the gas tank at least half-full. Carry a winter emergency car kit including blankets, extra clothing, a flashlight with spare batteries, non-perishable foods, windshield scraper, shovel, sand, tow rope, and jumper cables in the trunk.

AAA advice

Keep your car winter ready by following these tips:

• Battery and charging system: Have the battery and charging system tested if your vehicle's battery is more than three years old. Your vehicle will need a fully charged battery to start up during a cold snap. Even a good battery can lose up to 50 percent of its capacity when the temperatures drop to zero. At 32 degrees it can take up to 30 percent more power to start a cold engine. If your vehicle started with a jumpstart you have only fixed the symptom but not the problem. A well maintained vehicle should start in nearly any weather condition.

• Coolant: Check the coolant level in the overflow tank when the engine is cold. If the level is low, add a 50/50 solution of coolant and water to maintain the necessary antifreeze capability. A 50/50 mix of antifreeze and water will protect your car’s engine to -34 degrees. You can test the antifreeze protection level with an inexpensive tester available at any auto parts store. Check the cooling system hoses for leaks, cracks or loose clamps, too. Any hoses that feel brittle or spongy when squeezed should be replaced.

• Ignition: People don’t think about tune-ups like they once did with older cars but ignition systems can fail. Damaged ignition wires, a cracked distributor cap or worn spark plugs can make starting difficult. If the check engine light is flashing this indicates an engine misfire that could be a result of a malfunctioning ignition system. Driving with a flashing check engine light will permanently damage the engine catalytic convertor-a very expensive repair.

• Oil: This is a year-round recommendation, but certainly worth taking care of with the rest of your winter prep. Always have your oil changed per manufacturer recommendations. You should have your vehicle's transmission fluid level checked at the same time. Synthetic oil is a benefit in every vehicle and will allow for quicker starts in very cold weather.

• Tires: In areas with heavy winter weather, installing winter tires on all four wheels will provide the best traction. Winter tires are also formulated to work better in very cold weather conditions due to the stickier rubber compounds. All-season tires work well in light-to-moderate snow conditions provided they have adequate tread depth. Examine tires for tread depth, uneven wearing and cupping. Uneven tire wear can indicate alignment, wheel balance or suspension problems that must be addressed to prevent further tire damage.

• Washer fluid: Fill the windshield washer fluid reservoir with a winter cleaning solution that has antifreeze components. Some window washer solution is rated to just 20 degrees, but in cold weather this solution can freeze and damage the washer system. Look for washer fluid that protects well below freezing temperatures.

• Wipers: Wiper blades should completely clear the glass with each swipe. Replace any blade that leaves streaks or misses spots. Consider installing wiper blades that have a one-piece plastic beam frame or winter blades that wrap the metal frame in a rubber boot. Both designs help prevent snow and ice buildup that can interfere with blade-to-glass contact.

• Engine Warm up: Extensive engine warm ups are not necessary even in very cold weather. A more fuel efficient technique is once the car is running and you are settled in with your favorite radio station and your seat belt fastened, drive reasonably until the engine comes up to operating temperature.

What do you do in extreme cold?

The most obvious answer is stay inside. Unfortunately, most businesses don’t close just because the temperature drops below 32 degrees and school tends to remain in session even during the coldest days. Therefore, since most residents will have to leave at some point during the day, be prepared.

Continue to check the media for emergency information and follow instructions from public officials. If Gov. Charlie Baker says to stay off the roads, then it’s probably a good idea to stay off the roads.

Another obvious answer to avoiding the extreme cold is to limit outdoor activities. While you may have to leave your home to get to work, school, an appointment, or even walk the dog, there’s no need to linger outside for any length of time. (If your pets do go outside, don’t let them out too long.)

Keep yourself warm by dressing in several layers of loose-fitting, lightweight clothing instead of a single heavy layer. Outer garments should be tightly woven and water repellent. Wear a hat, mittens (not gloves) and sturdy waterproof boots to protect your arms, legs, hands, and feet. Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect your lungs.

Be very careful when using space heaters, a fireplace or a wood stove to heat your home. Keep a fire extinguisher handy. The last thing anyone wants is to be outside watching as firefighters attempt to put out the blaze that a space heater or wood stove started.

If you use emergency generators or secondary heating systems, make sure they’re well ventilated. Also, keep emergency generators away from the home. If you do lose heat, move into a single room. At night, cover windows and external doors with extra blankets or sheets.

To stop pipes from freezing, wrap them in insulation or layers of newspapers covered in plastic. Let a trickle of warm water run from a faucet to keep water moving through your pipes. However, if the pipes freeze, open all faucets all the way, remove any insulation, and heat the frozen pipe with a hair dryer or wrap with towels soaked in hot water. Never use an open flame, such as a blowtorch, to thaw pipes as that could cause the water to heat up too quickly and the pipe to burst.

Check with local authorities or call 211 to find warming centers or nearby shelters. In the event of a power outage, seek an emergency shelter.

Know the symptoms of and watch out for cold-related illnesses. Call 911 to report emergencies.

Officials also stress that residents should check on neighbors, especially those who live alone, those with medical conditions and those who may need extra help.

How to spot a cold-related illness

Extreme cold, such as it is now, can caused several illnesses including:

• Frostbite, or the freezing of the skin and body tissue - symptoms include the loss of feeling and white or pale appearance in extremities, such as fingers, toes, earlobes, face, and the tip of the nose. Treatment includes getting the victim to a warm location, covering exposed skin (but do not rub the affected area) and seeking medical attention immediately.

• Hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature - symptoms include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, memory loss, and slurred speech. Treatment includes immediate medical attention if the person’s temperature falls below 95 degrees. Other treatments include getting the victim to a warm location, removing any wet clothing, warming the center of the body first by wrapping the person in blankets or putting on dry clothing, and giving them warm, non-alcoholic beverages if the person is conscious.

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Make sure you’re set to receive alerts, warnings and public safety information before, during and after emergencies. Make a Family Emergency Plan that addresses the needs of your family and prepares them to safely evacuate or shelter in place. Assemble an emergency kit.
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