A year later

It’s been 11 months since the Heat Dome descended over the Lower Mainland. Despite the seemingly-endless spring we are having, thoughts are turning back to the ugly heat of last year because of the recent release of the Coroner’s report on heat related deaths from 2021.

I wrote some thoughts about the New West experience of the Heat Dome last summer while the information was still raw, and have not stopped talking about it since. At the Lower Mainland LGA and UBCM, to the media, and to a much-esteemed panel of subject matter experts:And we have been talking about it in the City as we review our Emergency Response programs and work with our First Responders to assure we are more prepared next time. I talked on CKNW this week about the Coroner’s report, and about what Municipalities are doing now.

New Westminster started to make changes right after the scale of the event became evident last year. As we learned our existing Heat Plan was effective for the type of heat events we expected and experienced in the past (a few days of 32 degree heat with significant cooling in the evening), we were like everyone else in being unprepared for 42 degree heat and nights staying in the high 20s. So as early as last July we ramped up the scale of our Heat Response to include 24-hour cooling centers including accommodation for pets and toward more proactive communications. We have also looked at Vancouver’s lead in public misting stations and strategies to make more open spaces more accessible refuges for people across the City.

This was only the beginning, though. The City has been completely re-vamping our Emergency Response Centre operations plan so we are more coordinated in the face of a regional challenge like this. Our goal is to be more nimble and more resilient in the event systemic shortcomings in Ambulance or E-Comm response re-occur. We are also looking at a different communications approach, though we still identify some potential barriers to reaching the most impacted – the elderly, the socially isolated, those with disabilities and people with language or cultural barriers.

The Report by the Death Review Panel is itself a good read (despite some shortcomings, discussed below). The actions coming out of it I lump into three themes (because I’m a lumper), and I in turn am thinking about the Municipal role in each of the themes.

Coordinated Response System. There are two pieces here, the setting up of a more functional and robust response program, and the execution of supports when the event occurs. Fortunately, the Province has rolled out (through the UBCM) a Community Emergency Preparedness Fund with $189 Million to help local governments do this prep work. There is also some active work both locally in our EOC review and in the Province to assure funds for immediate response are available and accounted for. 24hour cooling centers need staff, working in shifts, need to supply cots, food, water, pet supports – it is the management of these resources that requires the EOC function. We also need to fund transportation and outreach work, which again requires both staff and physical resources.

Identify and Support Vulnerable Populations: Again, the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund will help local governments in the  “Identify” stage here with specific funding for Heat Risk Mapping, but the lack of disaggregated data on who was impacted in the last event is harming our ability to identify needs next time around. Especially in New West, the experiences of people with precarious immigration status, of recent immigrants, or people with language and cultural barriers was missed in the Coroner’s report. We don’t know what we don’t know, but at least anecdotally this was a challenge in New West. We have some work to do as a local government in mapping out these communities and finding the community connections that support our response.

Prevention and Mitigation: Building Code changes are a long-term solution to this emergent problem, as is planting trees and expanding green spaces to reduce urban heat island effects – this is work we are doing, though it will take a decade or more for the results to emerge. The need to renovate our oldest, lowest cost, and most vulnerable housing stock is a more medium-term response, and the speed of getting that done is mostly dependent on the money made available to make it happen. We need rapid deployment of a massive amount of senior government funds if we want to save lives in the next event. The Coroner’s Report talks about this, the Provincial government in their response talked directly to this, but we will have to wait to see what the action plan is.

One of the big flaws in the Coroner’s Report is in the Mitigation theme, and between my being on CKNW and me hitting publish on this, I have spent a couple of days talking local government climate action at the CLI, so you know where I am going here. This was a 56 page report about 619 people dying as a direct result of the Climate Emergency, and there is no reference to the need to rapidly address the cause of the Climate Emergency. No reference to plans to accelerate our decarbonizing of the economy, our building stock, our transportation systems, or our industrial incentive programs. This is a stunning gap, and a demonstration of how many parts of government still don’t understand Climate Disruption. MOTI, Ministry of Health, the Coroner, they see climate as that other Ministry’s problem. I don’t know what it is going to take to shake this cognitive dissonance off.

In the end, this report is about government response to a tragedy, and the number 619 is used to indicate severity of the problem, But 619 people is an abstraction, it’s a number, just as 33 people in New Westminster is a number. It’s the job of the Coroner to provide the count, but it isn’t their job to tell the stories of the people who died, or of the thousands of people who were traumatized by their loss. I am glad a few news stories are putting faces and names to the victims, to our neighbours and friends, to the humans and members of our community we lost in this shocking mass death event. And I’m hoping that recognition will shock governments at every level to action, perhaps even eat away at that cognitive dissonance.

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