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Polar coaster

The National Weather Service predicts huge swings in temperature and the amount of moisture we receive during the winter. This has been described as a weather rollercoaster or “Polar Coaster”. Such variability mandates that we maintain a high degree of situational awareness to process the information we need to perform safely in hazardous environments.

What's the problem?

Since over 70% of the nation's roads are located in regions that receive more than 5” of snow and other areas are subject to ice storms, it's no surprise that more than 116,000 Americans are hurt and over 1,300 are killed on snowy, slushy or icy pavement each winter. It is surprising that fewer people are killed in large-scale weather disasters than those killed in weather related crashes. Seventeen percent of all crashes occur during winter weather conditions. How do we address the problem? We prepare, protect and prevent.


The concept of proper vehicle preparation must be used at all times. During the winter months we must make certain that properly trained personnel check brakes, windshield wipers, defroster, heater, exhaust systems, batteries, alternators, fluids (especially antifreeze and windshield washer) and tires. During our shift we must “re-prepare” by keeping our vehicles clean, paying extra attention to headlights, tail lights and turn signals. Do we keep our fuel topped off? Are mechanisms in place to ensure that vehicles are properly stocked with emergency supplies as dictated by weather conditions and terrain?

Part of our personal preparation must include familiarity with all of the vehicles we might drive in inclement weather. We should practice winter weather driving with instruction and guidance from an appropriately credentialed instructor. When practical, during daylight hours maneuvers should be rehearsed slowly on ice or snow in an empty lot. For example, steer into a skid, stomp on anti-lock brakes, pump non-antilock brakes and become familiar with stopping distances. It can take up to 10 times longer to stop on snow or ice. Come to work rested, adequately nourished and free from illness.


Maintain a timely awareness of the lowest forecasted temperature and wind chill index. Dress in a manner that allows you to withstand the severest potential exposure. Dress in layers so if you begin to sweat you can remove clothing to decrease the likelihood of developing hypothermia. Wear properly rated long underwear, preferably made of polypropylene to keep water away from the skin. Choose footwear that provides adequate warmth, support, water resistance and traction. Wear multiple layers of socks and have spares so you can add or remove layers as needed. Protect yourself from the adverse effects of drugs by not ingesting those that may impair driving. Note that over-the-counter medications may actually be preparations, which contain multiple agents. Read the labels. Make a list of all your medications including supplements and discuss them with your physician.


Slips and falls have become a serious component of injuries to personnel and patients during patient handling. They are particularly hazardous when weather conditions reduce the coefficient of friction. Pay attention, communicate among the crew and with the patient. Think about walking. Take short steps and move at a slower pace. Give yourself the opportunity to react immediately to a change in traction.

To avoid crashes:
  • Slow down
  • Increase following distance
  • Decelerate well in advance of turning or stopping
  • Avoid braking while turning
  • When you go down a hill choose your maximum safe speed at the top of the hill and travel at a slower speed as you descend. Use gentle braking throughout. Don't wait until you are at the bottom of the hill to do all of your braking.


The concepts of prepare, protect and prevent overlap. Some might consider items in “Protect” as more properly placed in “Prepare” or vice versa. Hopefully, adequate preparation and protection will result in prevention.