Heat dome report includes “no recommendations” to keep people safe this summer, says critic
“There are no recommendations that create new options for people to escape the heat in 2022 that did not exist in 2021, the year that 619 people died in one week as a result of the heat,” said Gabrielle Peters.
A BC Coroners Service review panel into last year’s deadly heat dome says in the event of a similar heat wave, the province needs to lead a coordinated response to keep vulnerable people safe.
But one disabled writer and policy analyst who was a part of the panel for a portion of its review period says her recommendations to support people with disabilities were ignored and that she wasn’t able to adequately participate in meetings due to accessibility issues.
Gabrielle Peters says the final report, which she requested her name be removed from, contains no recommendations for immediate action that would help keep vulnerable people safe this summer if a heat dome were to hit BC in 2022.
The death review panel released its report on Tuesday, nearly a year after the heat dome that killed hundreds across BC. While a preliminary report released last year said that 595 people died, the coroner’s service has updated the number to 619.
Many of those who died had chronic health conditions
Seventy-three of those who died were located in Burnaby (an increase of 10 from the previous report) and 33 were in New Westminster (up from 28), accounting for 17% of all deaths related to the heat dome.
New Westminster had the highest death rate in the province, meanwhile, at 41.8 people per 100,000, while Burnaby had the second highest at 29.3 per 100,000.
The report found that 98% of all deaths occurred indoors, and deaths were more frequent in people with chronic diseases, including schizophrenia, substance use disorders, epilepsy, depression, asthma, mood and anxiety disorders, and diabetes—many of which impact mobility and cognition.
However, the panel couldn’t determine how many of the people who died had mobility or cognitive issues that played an active role in their deaths.
Many of the people who died lived alone, or lived in socially or materially deprived neighbourhoods, and most didn’t have adequate cooling systems in their homes.
More than a third of decedents were over the age of 70.
The report also details the strain on BC’s emergency health system during the heatwave—in 50 cases, paramedics took longer than 30 minutes to arrive on the scene after 911 was called. Six times, callers were told there were no ambulances available.
Nearly 450 people called for an ambulance—but shockingly, in 83% of cases, the victim was dead when paramedics arrived or died at the scene without being transported to hospital.
The report made recommendations in three key areas: the first, that the province implement a heat alert and response system, was announced on Monday by the BC government.
The second recommendation, to identify and support the populations most at risk of dying during an extreme heat emergency, said that the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction should conduct a review by December into the possibility of providing cooling devices like air conditioners to vulnerable people.
The third recommendation, on long-term strategies for extreme heat prevention and mitigation, suggested that the 2024 BC Building Code include cooling requirements for new housing construction similar to the requirements for heating.
At a press conference following the report’s release, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said they would review the recommendations.
Although this summer has proved much cooler and wetter than last year, scientists have repeatedly warned that extreme weather events like the heat dome will become more frequent as part of the reality of climate change.
Dix couldn’t promise that if another event hits BC this summer, we wouldn’t see a similar death toll again—but said the province is in a better position to save lives.
Keeping disabled people safe in another heat wave
“One of the challenges is identifying who is most at risk and how to adequately meet their needs, to the most impactful interventions during a heat event, or ensuring people have a way of staying cool either inside their residence or elsewhere,” said Dr Jatinder Baidwan, chief medical officer with the BC Coroners Service, in a press conference.
“And conducting informed checks on older adults, persons with health conditions, those living alone, and those with mobility issues, to consult and work with them on their wellbeing and support needs. Any successful strategy must include the perspectives and stated needs of those most at risk of injury or death from the extreme heat.”
Baidwan told reporters that decision makers need to listen to people on the ground who are at most risk, and said that the panel had included experts with a wide range of perspectives.
When a reporter asked if there were any disabled people on the panel, considering the number of health concerns experienced by people who suffered a heat-related death and the increased risk of heat-related illness for people with disabilities, Baidwan said that one person on the panel “fit that category.” He characterized that person’s presence on the panel as “widespread consultation.”
But Peters says her perspectives on the panel went ignored, and that her participation was limited because the coroners service did not make meetings accessible to her.
Peters is a disabled Vancouver resident who lives in social housing, and was asked to be a part of the death review panel after she worked on a memo to the Vancouver city planning commission immediately following the heat dome.
Because she is extremely vulnerable to COVID and the meeting was held in person with no mask requirement, Peters requested to participate virtually. She said at first, the chair suggested she step aside instead.
When she was eventually connected to the meeting via phone and laptop, Peters found it difficult to hear what anyone was saying because no one was connected to a microphone and most people were not visible on camera.
“Nonetheless I endeavored to participate. I felt my presence and comments were unwelcome by the chair. Still, following the meeting I did provide some recommendations via email to further add to my limited participation in the panel,” she said in a statement.
“There were eight and they were rejected.”
Peters eventually requested that her name be removed from the final report.
In a statement, the BC Coroners Service said Peters’ participation in the panel was much-appreciated and that her input is reflected in the report. A spokesperson said the in-person meeting room was accessible and met COVID safety requirements, but couldn’t accommodate a virtual option other than the one provided.
Peters said the panel failed in its mandate to provide advice to the chief coroner that could impact public safety and health and the prevention of deaths, because it did not adequately address the concerns and dangers to disabled people in the event of a heat emergency.
She said it also ignored the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been ratified by Canada and requires states to pay particular attention to ensure the safety of people with disabilities in emergencies and natural disasters.
“By listing medical conditions and not including the broader category of disability (the word disability does not appear once in the final report), the report indirectly implies a causal link entirely to the presence of comorbidity and not the social and political factors that disabled people experience,” Peters wrote.
She also criticized the panel for not recommending that the government provide air conditioners or hotel rooms for high risk populations this summer. The panel only recommended that the province conduct a review of that possibility by December.
“There are no recommendations that create new options for people to escape the heat in 2022 that did not exist in 2021, the year that 619 people died in one week as a result of the heat,” Peters said.