Taking heat to heart: local government climate change leadership can play a key role in protecting the health of citizens
Extreme heat is a rarity in coastal Vancouver. However, in Vancouver, in 2009, 110 persons died during a week-long extreme heat event.
With a changing climate, BC is expected to experience a continued increase in average summer temperatures and in extremely hot days.
Surprisingly, it is not always the actual temperature, but rather the change in temperatures to which people are accustomed, and with it the lack adaptation to higher temperatures, that may put people at risk of heat-related illness and death (Health Canada, 2012).
A report from the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) showed BC’s coastal and northern regions, where populations are least adapted to higher temperatures, have the highest heat impact per degree on mortality and susceptibility to extreme heat.
Additionally, certain segments of the population are most at risk of heat-related illness, including seniors, people on specific medications, low income and socially isolated people, and young children.
BCCDC investigated the state of planning and preparedness, emergency response, and long-term adaption strategies to extreme heat and climate change in BC in the report: Review of Municipal Heat Response Planning in British Columbia, Canada
This report provides useful information for planning, including:
- An overview of the health impacts of extreme heat events, which segments of the population are most vulnerable, and how cities can effectively help mitigate impacts.
- Interviews on extreme heat preparedness with representatives from BC health authorities and emergency preparedness organizations exploring challenges and priorities are in planning for extreme heat.
- Links to and comparison of extreme heat response planning documents from BC municipalities, including Vancouver and Pitt Meadows, showing preparedness in large and small municipalities.
Key findings from this report include:
- Relatively few BC municipalities have formalized heat plans, although most have some climate change adaptation and/or mitigation strategies, or at least in the process of developing them. Those that have plans are primarily in the coastal region.
- Many municipalities feel hampered by a lack of resources and/or personnel capacity to prepare for extreme heat or to identify and map the most vulnerable segments of the population.
- Municipalities need to be aware that socially isolated citizens are at greater risk for heat-related illness, just as in almost all emergency situations, climate change related or not.
Findings from the report spurred researchers to prepare Developing a Municipal Heat Response Plan: A Guide for Medium-sized Municipalities. This guidance document aims to provide best practices for how to integrate heat preparedness into existing emergency plans. It includes the following elements:
- Asset management, i.e., taking stock of physical resources, non-profit organization and health authority supports, and communications strategies.
- Tips for assembling an emergency planning group and low resource solutions to mapping vulnerable citizens and populations.
- Information on how to establish an activation/ deactivation protocol. Protocol implementation checklist.
- Suggestions for the evaluation of extreme heat strategies.
Once municipalities take heat to heart, they will find that they generally have the resources and assets they need to develop an extreme heat plan, which can be adapted to pre-existing emergency plans.
Written by Amy Lubik, Environmental Health and Knowledge Translation Scientist, BC CDC. Amy is also a longtime participant in our civic governance forums.