Burnaby’s heat response plan is a start, but health and climate experts want more
Experts appreciate changes the city has made since last summer, but call for greater communication and more tangible support for the city's most vulnerable citizens.
As the province nears the one-year anniversary of the deadly heat dome that killed hundreds last June, the city says it’s ready to roll out its extreme heat operational response plan whenever it’s needed, including opening four cooling centres where Burnaby residents can seek respite from extreme heat.
While Environment and Climate Change Canada recently issued a special weather statement forecasting temperatures in the low 30s in Metro Vancouver this weekend, Chris Bryan, public affairs manager with the City of Burnaby, said the city is waiting for an ECCC heat warning before activating the plan.
In the meantime, he said residents can still seek refuge in any city building.
“We’ll continue to monitor and activate if the situation changes,” said Bryan. “Regardless of whether our cooling centres are open [or] not, residents seeking a place to cool off are always welcome at any city facility.”
The heat response plan lays out how the city intends to help its residents beat extreme heat events, including by opening city-run cooling centres, supporting open-air pop-up stations, and activating an enhanced city communications strategy informing residents about where and how to stay cool.
Overall, the city has made a number of changes to its heat response plan in response to community partner feedback, advice from Fraser Health, and a review of last year’s heat response.
But while environment and health experts welcome some of the improvements, questions remain around the plan’s execution, and if more needs to be done for the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Location, location, location
Although there are four cooling centres that will be set up in the city, one of the key challenges they present is being able to physically get there.
Bryan said the locations for the cooling centres—located at Cameron Community Centre, Bonsor Recreation Complex, Edmonds Community Centre, and Eileen Dailly Leisure Pool & Fitness Centre—were chosen for a number of different benefits.
“Generally, those were chosen because they feature in the four corners of the city, they’re major recreation centres so there’s a lot of space if we need to expand, and they’re central to those neighbourhoods,” he said. “Those major recreation facilities [also] tend to have high-frequency transit: either they’re located close to SkyTrain stations or high-frequency transit bus routes.”
While many people can tolerate a quick SkyTrain ride and a short walk to get to a nearby cooling centre, it can be a greater challenge for those with mobility issues, including those with mobility impairments and the elderly.
“[For] anyone with mobility issues, the idea of walking, taking a bus, then walking to a cooling centre would just be, one, incredibly hard, and two, it kind of cancels out the whole point of going to a cooling place, because they’re having to deal with so much additional physical stress,” Andreanne Doyon, director of the resource and environment management school at SFU, told the Beacon in an interview.
In response to those concerns, the city plans to use Burnaby’s citizen support services to transport some seniors to the cooling centres—as well as tapping into other community organizations like the Burnaby Neighbourhood House for volunteers to facilitate that service and spread the word.
But information about the service can be hard to find, as there isn’t a public listing for the service on the Burnaby Neighbourhood House, citizen support services or extreme heat response plan websites.
Instead, residents have to sign up with citizen support services or get in touch with Burnaby Neighbourhood, or potentially be added to the list for the service by another community partner.
“With citizen support services, we have some names already as part of our ongoing work that we do with our seniors. That’s replicated through numerous community organizations who have their own lists as well,” said David Critchley, director of public safety and community services, at a recent council meeting.
“We already have some names, and we’re undertaking steps for each organization to do their utmost in collecting additional names.”
Kimberly Barwich, a program director at Burnaby Neighbourhood House, noted the service is working on its communications process, and said, for now, BHN is gearing its advertising focus primarily on getting volunteer drivers signed up.
“We have a lot of work to do with Burnaby to create infrastructure to support vulnerable citizens during a heat wave,” said Barwich.
Critchley also said that city staff are asking physicians with Burnaby Divisions of Family Practice to ask for patients’ consent to be added to the list.
While Burnaby residents were able to sign up for citizen support services at some cooling centre open houses held last month, Doyon thinks the city is missing out on opportunities to make these options known to the broader public ahead of the next heat wave.
“Even on the [city’s extreme heat] webpage, where it says, ‘How should I check in with family, friends or neighbours during the heat wave?’ it would be really great to have put there, ‘If someone needs help accessing [the cooling centre], offer to get them to a cooling centre if possible, or call this number so the shuttle can come and get them,” said Doyon.
“Sometimes it’s about making these things available not just to your target audience, but people who are in contact with your target audience.”
Open-air cooling stations
Another addition to last year’s heat response is the opening of a second open-air cooling station. Last year, the city and the Union of BC Municipalities supported a pop-up outdoor cooling station in Civic Square operated by the Society to End Homelessness in Burnaby.
The society’s outreach resource director Carol-Ann Flanagan said the station was able to serve over 600 guests during heat waves in July and August, providing amenities like shade, free WiFi, and a misting station. Members of Burnaby’s Progressive Housing Society were also onsite and able to give referrals for shelter and financial aid.
Flanagan said the city’s logistical and financial support for the society’s new open-air station in Kensington Park is a welcome addition that will help accommodate needs in North Burnaby.
She said the Civic Square station proved helpful as a “low-barrier” place of respite, especially for unhoused individuals.
“From July 30th to August 4th, we served 308 guests, and 36% of those were truly homeless people, without a lieu,” said Flanagan. “Last year it was one of those, ‘We need to have this, just find a place—[Burnaby], please give us space so we can do this.’ So now at least we have one in the north and one in the south.”
In total, Burnaby residents will have access to six cooling centres and open-air stations this summer. And while that doesn’t include shaded areas, misting stations, and other outdoor areas the city has highlighted as spaces to cool off, one health expert said there should be more advertised cooling areas for a city the size of Burnaby.
“The number of cooling centres is totally inadequate for a city of [that] size,” said Jennifer Baumbusch, UBC’s master of health leadership and policy program director. “That was one of the issues last year, and it sounds like it’s going to continue to be an issue this year.”
Doyon also thinks the number of official cooling areas is insufficient. She agreed that open-air stations can be a great alternative, especially for unhoused and underhoused people who may feel less welcome at the indoor cooling centres—but said for that reason, it’s all the more important that those are available and accessible.
“I appreciate that some level of thought was put into that. But two centres in a city the size of Burnaby, how are they getting there?” she said. “Particularly if we’re thinking about a population that has an even harder time getting around or has even less disposable income to be able to afford to get to those spaces.”
Bryan noted that the two open-air locations were chosen for their availability, and for their proximity to where homeless individuals are known to travel in Burnaby.
Other cooling options and spaces
Aside from the cooling centres and open-air stations, the city is also encouraging residents to take advantage of other city-owned, indoor public spaces to seek relief from the heat.
“Every city facility essentially is a cooling location. If it’s a hot day and you come out to city hall, you’re not going to be told to leave. You won’t be told [to leave] any day, but especially on a hot day,” said Critchley at one of the heat response plan open houses last month. “Our libraries, all of our facilities, there’s many areas that you can seek refuge if you need to.”
Bryan added that it’s important to focus public messaging on cooling centres themselves to make sure people know they’re ready to be activated if need be.
“It’s important that we imprint that in people’s mind, that these are here, they’re available, they’ll be activated, and that you’re welcome [there],” he said. “It’s [also] important that people think, ‘Well, I do live close to the mall,’ or wherever it is where they like to go, where they know it’s air conditioned, if they just need temporary relief.”
Bryan said more public messaging will be added with time, and that residents are also encouraged to take advantage of the outdoor spaces such as pools, spray pads, and misting stations.
Baumbusch and Doyon both think it’s a good move for the city to highlight outdoor spaces in its communications strategy. But for Baumbusch, making a broader effort to communicate that the city’s other indoor areas are available, outside of announcements at open houses, would also go a long way.
“We absolutely should be encouraging people to use those outdoor spaces,” she said. “[But] if you don’t know that you’d be welcomed in city hall or in the library, then you might be more hesitant to go into those spaces.”
“The city needs to really be clear about that, and that those are all spots where people can go to cool down.”
Actions for those not using cooling spaces
For many of those with mobility challenges, including the elderly, it’s simply a bridge too far to get out to one of the city-run spaces.
Baumbusch said there are both physiological and societal reasons why the elderly and people with chronic illnesses are more at risk during heat events. Not only do they have a physically harder time recognizing extreme heat or cold, but having a chronic illness or disability also often correlates with lower income or even poverty.
This can make it harder for those groups to afford to be able to cool off at home, like by purchasing an air conditioner. Baumbusch said these groups need more tangible support from their government to stay safe during extreme heat.
“One of the things I really advocate for, and others have as well, is having air conditioners added to medical equipment for people with disabilities … to get partially funded. Because an air conditioning unit is completely financially out of reach for most people,” she noted.
Even for those that aren’t disabled, Baumbusch thinks the city could focus more on “getting cooling centres to people.”
“A lot of people who are living in social housing or apartment buildings have common rooms in those buildings. And the city does know where there are clusters of people at high risk living in the same building. So it makes sense to create a cooling space within their building, by purchasing a few air conditioning units,” she said.
At a recent council meeting, Critchley said the city is in talks with Fraser Health about initiatives to get air conditioners to disabled people, but that it would fall under Fraser Health’s responsibility.
Critchley also encouraged the public to reach out to friends and family, as the heat ramps up, at one of the cooling centre open houses.
“The folks who are most impacted are not the folks who would typically go to a cooling location,” he said. “But we’re looking to get the message out to the folks who aren’t as mobile.”
Bryan said the city is planning to amplify messaging from health authorities and emergency agencies to help Burnaby residents prepare for and respond to heat events.
And during an extreme heat event, the city will reach out to inform the public through all city channels, visit residents of around 300 buildings without A/C who could be vulnerable, and distribute informational postcards throughout the community about cooling centres and other resources.
The city is also planning on using the Alertable app to notify residents of heat waves and cooling centres.
Baumbusch approves of the city’s emphasis on public messaging but said it will fall flat if it’s not paired with more tangible support for its residents.
“It’s great that we’re increasing public education around the signs of heat stroke and what we can personally do to be able to take care of ourselves,” she said.
“But I also think there’s an aspect of recognizing people who don’t have the resources to do that and making them available.”