Protections for vulnerable still in question in BC’s new extreme heat plan
In the case of an extreme heat emergency, the province may make use of its Alert Ready system to issue emergency broadcasts to phones, tvs, and radios.
The provincial government is launching a new preparedness plan and alert system for extreme heat events, after a heat dome last year claimed nearly 600 lives in BC.
At a press conference on Monday, however, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and Health Minister Adrian Dix gave few details on how BC plans to support its most vulnerable residents through another extreme heat event.
Farnworth said the new BC Heat Alert and Response System (BC HARS) includes two categories of heat event: heat warnings and extreme heat emergencies.
A heat warning will be issued when temperatures reach or exceed regional thresholds (in the Lower Mainland, daytime highs of 29°C and nighttime lows of 16°) for two or more consecutive days.
In the case of an extreme heat emergency—where temperatures exceed regional thresholds and are expected to continue rising substantively day over day for at least three consecutive days—the province may make use of its Alert Ready system to issue emergency broadcasts to phones, tvs, and radios.
BC Emergency Health Services, meanwhile, has a new clinical safety plan that the province says will increase capacity, maintain service quality, and protect staff health and safety. Staff may be reassigned during an extreme event to keep up with increased call volumes, reduce turnaround time at hospitals, and keep ambulances free—following disastrous response times during last year’s deadly event.
“We’ve also recently announced a new stream under the $189-million community emergency preparedness fund to provide funding to communities for heat risk mapping, assessment and planning,” Farnworth said.
“This funding stream is … intended to support communities to ensure they have accurate knowledge of the risks associated with extreme heat and how these risks will change over time, and to develop effective response plans and strategies to repair and mitigate and adapt to those risks.”
Farnworth said the province will also be working with local governments and First Nations to provide “clear guidance on eligible expenses,” like opening cooling centres and providing transportation for residents to those centres.
He said in cases of extreme heat, the province will focus on sending out messaging to British Columbians with advice on how to stay cool and check on neighbours.
“A great way to get ready before a heat event is to make a plan and to get prepared. As part of the plan, identify cool zones inside and outside of your home, such as community centers, libraries, or malls,” Farnworth said.
“Identify neighbors and family members who may be at risk during a heat event. If heat has a severe impact on you or you live in a building that gets very hot, plan to go elsewhere during a heat event.”
However, he didn’t answer several questions from reporters on how specifically the province will support people with disabilities or people with lower incomes who may struggle to simply go somewhere else during a heat wave like the one we experienced last year.
Those are also often the people most vulnerable to extreme heat. The BCCDC found that the majority of those who died last year were elderly, poor, isolated, and female.
The BC Coroners Service, meanwhile, reported that 96% of deaths occurred in a residential setting.
In the wake of the heat dome, Vancouver city council passed a motion to plan for future heat waves in response to a memo that recommended the city provide low-income residents with air conditioners.
When asked multiple times if the province would take on a similar responsibility, Farnworth said the BC government will await the results of a death review panel report by the BC Coroners Service.
“I fully expect that that will have other recommendations as well, which we will be able to act on,” Farnworth said.
When asked if the province was committing to implementing any or all recommendations from the coroner’s report, he said the government would have to first examine those recommendations.
The BC Coroners Service announced shortly after the Monday afternoon press conference that it would be releasing the results of its death review panel on Tuesday morning.
In Burnaby and New Westminster, which accounted for 15% of all deaths across BC in the heat dome, community groups are working with local politicians to collect fans and spray bottles to help seniors prepare for extreme heat this summer.
Burnaby Neighbourhood House CEO Antonia Beck told the Beacon that the city has one of the highest poverty rates for seniors in the province, making it difficult for some to afford their own fans.
Volunteers will also be sending out educational material with tips on how to keep cool in extreme weather conditions.
“Just fans alone isn’t really the answer. It’s really a fan and a water bottle [to makeshift an air conditioner], that will be the answer for this expected heat event. And the other thing that I learned is that, in seniors, as you get older, your body doesn’t regulate heat as well. So you don’t feel yourself getting hot, and so that’s why some seniors might slip away without realizing they’re slipping away,” Beck said in late May.
“Also your medications might impact your ability to regulate heat, and then they may have other compounding illnesses—high blood pressure and that. And so it’s the seniors that are in their own homes that we’re most concerned about, and that we really want to help and support.”
The Fans for Seniors Campaign is taking donations of fans, air coolers, and spray bottles at Burnaby Neighbourhood House, along with Julian’s constituency office #110-888 Carnarvon St in New Westminster and Anne Kang’s constituency office at #105-6411 Nelson Ave in Burnaby.
On Monday, Dix acknowledged that the reality of climate change means that BC could well see extreme heat more frequently than it has before.
“We know that we will continue to see an increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather events due to climate change. And we must and we will be ready to respond,” he said.
“I encourage everyone to start making plans now for how you will protect yourself and your loved ones, particularly those that are vulnerable.”