January 8, 2015

With another cold blast coming through, here is a story and some tips for reporting those cold-weather stories.

Colorado Springs journalist Eric Fink is hospitalized, suffering from frostbite on both hands.

His friend, KRDO-TV weekend anchor Jonathan Petramala, captured this photograph of Fink in the emergency room.

“Eric was working alone as an MMJ Saturday evening in a community called Falcon. It is a suburb of Colorado Springs, in the plains. The wind was whipping, maybe 25 miles per hour. The temperature was in the teens,” said Petramala.

Fink was reporting on the approaching winter weather and was having trouble keeping a firewire connected to his backpack transmitter and had to pull off his gloves for 20 minutes to manipulate the controls on the unit, Petramala added.

Eric Fink

Eric Fink, KRDO-TV Colorado Springs

“By the time he got back to the station he said his fingers were numb. I grew up in this area so I knew something about frostbite,” Petramala said. “We put his hands in warm, not hot water. That’s what you do. By the time we finished the 10 o’clock news, blisters had started to form on his hands. We went to the hospital. By the time we got there, the blisters were rising. It started to look like he had a second degree burn. That’s what frostbite injuries look like, a burn.”

By 4 a.m., Petramala said, the injuries “looked like he had dunked his hands in a boiling pot of water.” Doctors sent Fink to a Denver hospital burn ward where specialists also treat frostbite injuries because the treatment is so similar. The long-term effect of Fink’s frostbite damage is still unknown.

This story is worth special attention this week as bone-chilling cold weather sweeps across the nation.

Here is first-aid advice for treatment of frostbite.

I asked journalist friends who have spent time in the ice and snow for their advice for working in severe winter conditions. Here are some of their responses:

Scott Libin, former news director, now Senior Fellow at University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Scott Libin, former news director, now Senior Fellow at University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Scott Libin: Former KSTP News Director Minneapolis (now teaches at University of Minnesota)

When I got to KSTP as news director in 1998, I was a stickler for certain rules.  (No, not all of them grammatical.)  I insisted every live shot be established with a reporter in front of the camera 10 minutes before air — not 10 minutes before the shot was scheduled to hit; 10 minutes before the newscast began.

It took me less than one Minnesota winter to learn that things don’t work the same way in this kind of cold.  Cables go rigid, masts stick and faces freeze — literally.  People can’t speak normally after only a few minutes outside.  It was easy for me to sit in climate-controlled comfort and insist that all remote signals, audio and lighting be checked before the open rolled, but if the reporter was visibly suffering and couldn’t form intelligible speech, all that technical excellence went to waste.

I wish all managers and producers would take weather conditions, whether sub-zero cold or summertime lightning, as seriously as they take, say, crowd control.  I think we’ve all learned the hard way that some settings require extra hands in the field for safety’s sake.  I think weather is one such circumstance.  A one-person, unassisted live shot is tough enough under ideal conditions.  It may well be unreasonable to ask in the paralyzing cold.

The best way to educate inside staffers is still to send them outside.

Dave Wertheimer, KING TV

Dave Wertheimer-KING TV

Dave Wertheimer: KING 5 Photojournalist/Editor
(formerly worked in Minneapolis TV)

Expect the unexpected. I have a news car full of extra, well, everything.

I have granola bars, at least a dozen water bottles and cans or ready-to-eat stuff that be stored in a variable temperatures.

Clothing. Layers. I carry at least 3 jackets (various) for rain and snow. Lots of spare gloves and winter head gear. I also carry an overnight bag with a couple of days worth of clothes and toiletries.

Shoes, at least 3 pair, winter boots, rubber farm boots, and one other pair of works shoes.

For the reporter, I carry hair spray.

I always carry in my back pocket a white wash cloth for wiping the lens and for white balancing. I keep one of these in each jacket pocket also.

For the gear, nothing beats garbage bags for protection. Just poke a hole for the lens and viewfinder, and use a ziplock and rubber band to keep water out of the viewfinder. I also have zip locks for LED lights and wireless mic transmitters. When working in really harsh conditions to keep my stick mic safe I wrap it in an unlubricated condom. (Note from Al, he is serious about this. It is an old photographer trick that comes in especially handy covering hurricanes.) 

Pat Slattery: Chief Photographer, Vanderbilt News & Communications

I kept my batteries in a small cooler in the trunk, it keeps out the cold in the winter the same way it keeps out the heat in the summer. I wore glove liners under fingerless gloves, which keeps you toasty but still gives you the tactile sense for small switches and connectors.

Holly Page: CEO, Wave One Group

While my TV news days are behind me, I remember being shoved out the door by overly aggressive producers + assignment editors in Salt Lake City to cover cold-weather related stories. Here’s what I wished I knew then, and what has worked for me now:

  • Wool socks, wool scarf, wool hat. There’s a theme here!
  • Avoid wearing anything made of cotton because cotton holds moisture like a sponge.
  • Make sure you can be seen at night. Wear reflective gear.

I know it’s futile to change the minds of producers who are hell-bent on airing a “cold weather story”, so you’ve got to take care of yourself.

Mike Borland: WHO TV Des Moines chief photojournalist

We expand the rule usually applied to doing live shots in storms. If the crew in the field feel they are in danger they can call off a shot. In general we don’t do live shots when temps are below 0º. Spot news is different. Sometimes an extra person on the shot can make all the difference so one can shoot while the other gets warm.

Getting the story shot when it’s not live sometimes means shooting a little, getting warm, shooting a little more and repeating that cycle until the job is done. The camera stays cold, I don’t bring it in the car as long as it’s working. If it stays cold it won’t fog up. I have a charger in my car so I always have a fresh battery. Same goes with a live truck.

Christopher Shadrock: KVUE Austin (formerly from Vermont) told me that when he is producing, he buys hand and foot warmers for his crews and sends the expense reports to accounting. We love producers who think like that! He added:

The last ice storm we had, we were on air for 5 straight hours. After our live hits we went back inside the live truck. Thanks to my rain gear and an umbrella I was able to leave my camera on and give the folks back in the booth a live look when ever they wanted. Later in the morning when it got brighter I would switch to the mast cam 30′ up in the air for a different look.

The one thing I learned that morning was that your mast can freeze 30′ up in the air. Luckily we were in front of a business that gave me a few pots of warm water to melt the ice and get us back on the road.

Anna Devencenty: photojournalist KCBS/KCAL (formerly from Colorado):

Keep the car colder than you would. Don’t blast the heat the whole trip because the extremes of getting in and out will take a toll on you. It also helps the equipment not to fog up. Keep the car somewhat comfortable but not hot or even too warm if you’re a crew needing to jump in and out. It also helps you acclimate.

Joe Nelson: CTN Reporter Producer (reports in Minnesota and Wisconsin)

Stay inside your vehicle and keep it running as long as possible. Set up the live shot and do the mic check when you get there, then go back in the car until a couple minutes before you’re on. Have at least two extra batteries and keep them warm in your gloves (if they’re small enough) and ready to replace the one in the camera.

Todd Walker: formerly of KTUU and KTVA in Anchorage:

I grew up in Alaska and worked my first few news jobs there. Reporters, MMJ’s, photogs, anyone in the field needs to recognize what their body is telling them. Cold, numb, so cold it’s burning, suddenly feeling not so cold anymore and kind of warm, it all means different things and are warning signs from your body that something is wrong and you need to do something about it. Toughing it out will only get you hurt, and possibly permanently.

Brett Akagi: Media Director and Content Strategist at The University of Kansas  (Formerly KARE-11 photojournalist Minneapolis) sent some photos of his “must have gear.”


The only time I suffered frostbite was in Kansas City of all places. I shot a car ax in the elements for an hour without a stocking cap. The temp was in the mid-20’s with a stiff breeze. Two hours later my ears were bright red and hurt. This only happened once, because I learned from this mistake. When I moved to Minneapolis and started working at KARE-TV a few years later, I got good advice on shooting in the cold. “Try to buy the best gear possible to keep warm.”

I used to keep my batteries warm in Minnesota by heating up a microwavable neck wrap, placing it in a small cooler, covering it with a towel and placing my batteries in the cooler.

Stephanie Johnson, MMJ working at ABC 57 News in South Bend, IN

Stephanie Johnson, MMJ working at ABC 57 News in South Bend, Indiana


Stephanie Johnson: ABC 57 South Bend, gives some advice about disconnecting camera cables in cold weather

I don’t disconnect the cords until I get back to the station. That way my hands are not exposed and I don’t risk breaking the cables.


Scott Jensen, Chief Photographer KING-TV Seattle, formerly worked in Anchorage

Scott Jensen, Chief Photographer KING-TV Seattle, formerly worked in Anchorage

Finally I turned to my old friend Scott Jensen. Today he is the chief photographer for KING 5 in Seattle, but he has worked in Alaska and covered the Iditarod in the Arctic.

If you are going to work in a blizzard or winter weather they make a polar cover, which is kind of like a down coat for your camera. But a camera generates a little heat and a canvas cover was enough when I worked in Alaska. If it is snowing, you need a rain cover at least. Keep your batteries close to your body to keep them warm.  I have heard of people keeping hot packs around their controls if they have camera with mechanical parts, but I have never done that.  I have had brand new nine-volt batteries in my wireless mic fail in extreme cold.

Remember your hands will freeze fast if your bare hands touch a metal tripod.

You should also keep your drinking water close to you in a pocket. Put it outside and it freezes fast.  My parka is like a sleeping bag that you wear.  I have snow pants in two different weights. I wear my wind protection underneath my parka. Undergarments should be the “wicking” kind. I wear a polypropylene fiber skull cap and sometimes I wear a heavier wool hat over that. I wear a balaclava to keep my neck warm.

Remember, you are in charge of your OWN safety. Don’t do anything dumb.

And a personal note to anchors: As a reporter who has spent more than a few days standing in the cold on a live shot, there is almost nothing more annoying than hearing a toasty warm anchor tell me live on the air “thanks for that report, stay safe and warm out there.”  Just don’t.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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