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Safety & emergency preparedness

Winter weather

Winter weather can bring heavy snow, icy streets and sidewalks, dangerous wind chills, and power outages. Are you and your family prepared for a winter emergency? If you had to stay in your home for a few days, would you have what you need to stay safe, comfortable, and healthy? The Office of Emergency Management’s (OEM) Winter Weather Guide (pdf) / Large Print 16-pt (pdf) can help you start preparing for extreme winter conditions.

Snow emergency

If there is a big snowfall, the City’s managing director can declare a snow emergency. A snow emergency is different from a state of emergency, which is declared by the mayor. During a snow emergency, vehicles parked on snow emergency routes must be moved or they will be ticketed and towed. Parking is restricted on snow emergency routes so that snow plows can move through and clear roads. To find out if your car was towed, call (215) 686-SNOW. This line is only active during a snow emergency.

During a snow emergency, trash pick-up could be cancelled. There could also be power outages and public transit service suspensions. Check SEPTA for service detours and cancellations.


Sign up for ReadyPhiladelphia, the region’s emergency text and email alert system. The alerts are free but standard text messaging rates may apply.

Winter weather safety tips

Dress warm and stay dry

  • Dress in layers. Wear hats, scarves, and water-repellent coats. Wear mittens instead of gloves; they’ll keep your hands warmer.
  • Cover your mouth. Protect your lungs from extremely cold air by covering your mouth.
  • Be aware of wind chill. Wind carries heat away from the body.
  • Be aware of frostbite. Frostbite is frozen body tissue, usually skin. It affects fingers, toes, ears, and the tip of the nose first. The skin might lose feeling or look white, pale, hard or waxy. Then the skin may turn red, blue or purple. Skin can also swell or blister. The victim may also feel tingling, burning or severe pain as the frostbitten tissue thaws. If symptoms are detected, get medical help immediately.
  • Keep children warm, especially babies. Children and babies lose body heat faster than adults, so they can get frostbite faster.


Hypothermia (abnormally low body temperature) is a life-threatening condition. If you suspect hypothermia symptoms:

  1. Get to a warm location.
  2. Remove wet clothing.
  3. Put on dry clothes and wrap your entire body in a blanket.
  4. Warm the center of the body first.
  5. Drink warm non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated beverages.
  6. Seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Code Grey – declared when the National Weather Bureau predicts high winds and/or heavy rains or  frozen precipitation with temperatures above 32 degrees. During a Code Grey the City takes special measures to keep people who are homeless safe.

Snow and ice removal

Philadelphia has an ordinance requiring building owners, agents, and tenants to clear a path of at least 36 inches wide on sidewalks in front of their building. If the building is a multifamily dwelling, the owner or agent is responsible for the snow removal. Snow and ice removed from the building cannot be placed in the street. Violating this ordinance could result in a $50-300 fine. The language from the ordinance is below.

Philadelphia’s Code 10-720 regarding snow removal from sidewalks

  1. “The owner, agent, and tenants of any building or premise shall clear a path of not less than 36″ in width on all sidewalks, including curb cuts, abutting the building or premises within 6 (six) hours after the snow has ceased to fall. The path shall be thoroughly cleared of snow and ice. Where the width of any pavement measured from the property line to the curb is less than 3 (three) feet, the path cleared may be only 12 inches in width. When the building in question is a multifamily dwelling the owner or his agent shall be responsible for compliance with the requirements of this section.”
  2. Snow or ice removed from sidewalks, driveways, or other areas shall not be placed or piled in the street.
  3. Any person who violates this Section shall be subject to the provisions and penalties set forth in 10-718 and 10-719.

The penalty for violating this can range from “a minimum fine of fifty dollars ($50) to no more than three hundred dollars ($300) for each violation.”

It is also illegal to use private plows to pile snow in the street after City teams have cleared the road. It is a hazard to drivers and pedestrians.

Snow shoveling tips

  • Warm up with some stretching exercises before going outside.
  • Start slowly and pace yourself. Shovel no more than five loads a minute. Don’t shovel for more than 15 minutes without taking a break. Stop to stretch every five minutes by standing up straight.
  • Push the snow. Don’t lift. If you must lift, use your legs not your back.
  • Drink during breaks to avoid dehydration. Breathing cold dry air takes moisture from your body with every breath.
  • Never throw over your shoulder. Twisting can strain the back. Face the snow being shoveled, keep your back straight and knees bent, and throw in front of you.
  • Dress warmly in layers with a hat. Cover your neck.
  • Take smaller scoops of snow.
  • Don’t work up a sweat. Bodies lose heat faster in damp clothes, which makes you more prone to injury. Take a break if you begin to sweat.
  • Don’t smoke or eat a heavy meal before shoveling. It’s harder on the heart.
  • Don’t hold your breath; this makes your heart rate and blood pressure rise.
  • Don’t feel the job has to get done in one session.

De-icing tips

You can use any commercial de-icer for salting your sidewalk or driveway. Also remember to apply salt as soon as a light amount of snow is on the surface. This will make it easier to shovel the snow later. A final light application may be needed after removal to melt remaining snow. During a sleet or freezing rain storm, de-icing of sidewalks and driveways will need more than one application, depending on the conditions.

You should also remember to use de-icing salts sparingly. One pound can be used to cover 100 to 200 square feet. For example, 30 to 60 feet of sidewalk with a width of three feet can be treated at this rate. The material can be spread manually or with the help of simple equipment such as lawn seed and fertilizer spreaders. If spreaders are used, they should be rinsed out once the application is completed.

Use kitty litter on your sidewalk or driveway for temporary traction if you do not have a de-icer.

Winter driving

Before driving this winter, make sure that your brakes, battery, hoses, and belts are in good condition. Regularly check your vehicle to make sure:

  • Fluid levels are full.
  • Wiper blades don’t streak. Put winter wiper blades on your car.
  • Heater and defroster are working properly
  • Radio is working, so you can hear weather updates, road conditions, and traffic reports.
  • All lights are working.
  • Tires are properly inflated and have good tread. Think about getting snow tires or carrying a set of tire chains.

Winter driving safety

During a snow or ice storm, it is safest to stay off the roads or use public transportation.

If you have to drive:

  • Try to wait until road crews have cleared roadways.
  • Clear snow from the tail pipe before starting your car to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Clear off snow and ice from your car including windows, mirrors, roof, trunk, hood, and lights.
  • Allow for extra travel time and be very careful while driving.
  • Travel in daylight and don’t travel alone.
  • Use low beams during heavy or blowing snow.
  • Stay on main roads.
  • Be aware of roadways that could be icy, such as shady spots, bridges, and overpasses.
  • Drive at a safe speed.
  • Try not to make sudden stops and starts.
  • Keep a safe distance of at least five seconds behind other vehicles and trucks that are plowing the roadway.
  • Do not pass a snowplow or spreader unless it is absolutely necessary. Treat these vehicles as you would emergency response vehicles.
  • Carry a cell phone.
  • Stay tuned to news radio for weather and traffic updates.
  • Let family or friends know your travel schedule and routes.
  • Keep a small sack of sand or kitty litter in your car for getting traction under wheels if you get stuck.

Automobile emergency kit

Be sure to store these emergency items in your vehicle:

  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • Battery-operated or wind-up radio
  • Jumper cables
  • Emergency flares
  • Fluorescent distress flag
  • Tow chains or rope
  • Cell phone and charger
  • First-aid supplies
  • Warm clothing, hats, and mittens
  • Blankets
  • Ice scraper
  • Snow shovel
  • Road salt and sand
  • Snacks
  • Bottled water
  • Special need items such as medication, baby supplies, pet food

If you get stranded in your car:

  • Pull off the road and turn on the hazard lights (the blinkers).
  • Stay in your vehicle so rescuers can find you. Do not go out on foot unless you can see a building close by where you know you can take shelter.
  • Run the engine and heater about 10 minutes each hour to keep warm. When the engine is running, open a downwind window slightly to get clean air into the car. Clear snow from the exhaust pipe every time you are going to start the engine to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Take turns sleeping. One person should stay awake to look for rescue crews.
  • Drink fluids to avoid dehydration.

You can read more winter driving tips in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) Winter Services Guide (pdf).


Safe heating

Fires and emergencies happen every year in Philadelphia because of bad heating units. Call the Department of Licenses and Inspections at 215-686-2463 for a fire inspection if you do not know if your heat source is safe. If you rent and do not have heat, contact your building owner. If your heat does not come back on within a reasonable time, call the Department of Licenses and Inspections at (215) 686-2463.

Home heating tips

  • Keep any flammable items at least three-feet away from heating equipment.
  • Check your heating unit and keep it in good shape.
  • Make sure a qualified technician has installed or inspected fixed space heaters according to manufacturer’s instructions or codes.
  • Buy portable space heaters with labels listing a recognized testing lab.
  • Turn off space heaters every time you leave the room and before you go to bed.
  • Choose space heaters that turn off automatically when tipped over.
  • Never use a space heater to dry clothes.
  • Do not use your oven or stove burners to heat your home.
  • Install smoke alarms near every sleeping area and on every level of the home. Test smoke alarms monthly.
  • Install carbon monoxide alarms to avoid risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Make sure you check them once or twice a year to be sure they are working.

Frozen or damaged pipes

If areas in your home are unheated, you could experience frozen pipes or other pluming-related issues. Follow the tips below to keep the water flowing freely in your home.

  • Shut off outside water faucets from the inside valves. To drain these faucets, leave the outside valves open.
  • Keep the area around your water meter above 40 degrees Fahrenheit .
  • Wrap your water meter and its connecting pipe with insulation.
  • Caulk windows near water meters or pipes. Cover these windows with plastic.
  • Replace or cover cracked or broken windows.
  • Wrap and insulate all water pipes in unheated areas such as sheds, garages, and under kitchen floors.
  • Let tap water run slowly overnight in extremely cold weather to keep your pipes from freezing.

If the water service line or other internal pipes freeze or break, call a plumber to thaw frozen water in the service line or repair the damaged pipe.

Keep your pets safe and warm

These tips from the ASPCA will help you take care of your companion animals in extreme winter weather.

  • Keep your cat inside. When outdoors, cats can get lost, stolen, injured, or even freeze. Cats who are outside can also get infectious diseases, including rabies, from other cats, dogs, and wildlife.
  • During the winter, outdoor cats sometimes sleep under the hoods of cars. When the motor is started, the cat can be hurt or killed by the fan belt. If there are outdoor cats in your area, bang loudly on the car hood before starting the engine to give the cat a chance to escape.
  • Never let your dog off the leash on snow or ice, especially during a snowstorm. Dogs can lose their scent and easily get lost. More dogs are lost during the winter than during any other season, so make sure yours always wears ID tags.
  • Thoroughly wipe off your dog’s legs and stomach after he comes in from the sleet, snow, or ice. He can eat salt, antifreeze, or other potentially dangerous chemicals while licking his paws. His paw pads may also bleed from snow or encrusted ice.
  • Never shave your dog down to the skin in winter. A longer coat will be warmer. When you bathe your dog in the colder months, be sure to dry him all the way before taking him for a walk. If you own a short-haired breed, consider getting your pet a coat or sweater with a high collar or turtleneck with coverage from the base of the tail to the belly. For many dogs, this is regulation winter wear.
  • Never leave your dog or cat alone in a car during cold weather. A car can act as a refrigerator in the winter, holding in the cold and causing the animal to freeze to death.
  • Puppies have a lower tolerance to cold weather than adult dogs and may be difficult to housebreak during the winter. If your puppy seems to not like the cold, you may need to paper-train him inside. If your dog is sensitive to the cold due to age, illness, or breed type, take him outdoors only to relieve himself.
  • If your dog is used to spending a lot of time outdoors, give him more food, particularly protein, to keep him, and his fur, in top shape.
  • Thoroughly clean up any spills from your vehicle. Antifreeze is a lethal poison for dogs and cats. Think about using products that contain propylene glycol rather than ethylene glycol.
  • Make sure your pet has a warm place to sleep, off the floor and away from all drafts. A cozy dog or cat bed with a warm blanket or pillow is perfect.

Winter weather terms

Freezing rain advisory        

A warning that a small amount of ice is expected to form on surfaces.

Winter weather advisory      

A warning that a small amount of snow, sleet, and/or freezing rain is expected.

Snow advisory

A warning that snowfall of one to four inches is expected within a 12-hour period.

Blizzard warning     

A warning that strong winds, blinding blowing snow, and dangerous wind chill are expected in the next few hours.

Winter storm watch

A warning that heavy snow and/or ice is possible within 36 hours.

Winter storm warning

A warning that a storm with six or more inches of snow, sleet and/or freezing rain is expected within a 24-hour period.