We learned another new term this year. High-amplitude waves in the Jetstream, Rex Blocks, compressed high pressure zones: the details are complicated to us common folk, but well understood to atmospheric scientists. One thing is clear – this Heat Dome anomaly is one we are likely to see more often as anthropogenic climate change becomes anthropogenic climate disruption.
But I don’t want to talk about the causes, I want to talk about what happened, and what we do now.
Here in New Westminster, dozens of people died. We don’t have a complete accounting yet, and the coroner will no doubt report out in a few months when the horror of the situation has passed, but there may have been more than 40 “excess deaths” in New Westminster in the 4-day period of highest heat. Neighbours of ours, residents in our community. People who died in their home because it was too hot for their body to cope, and because they couldn’t get to help, or didn’t know they needed help. Or (alas) help was not available.
There were a few stories in the news, but aside from the horrific loss of Lytton, the news cycle around the Heat Dome has already begun to pass, which frightens me. More disasters are pushing it out of our mind. Is this the “New Normal” of living though COVID and an ongoing poisoned drug supply crisis – us becoming desensitized to mass death stories? With 900+ COVID deaths in our Health Region, 100+ opioid deaths in our community, does a few dozen avoidable heat-related deaths register? Do we even know how to get angry about this?
We talked about this in Council last week, and it come up in the UBCM executive meeting with the Minister of Municipal Affairs I attended on Friday. As we are contemplating the immediate impacts of wildfires, and the further-reaching effects of wildfire smoke, the conversation about what went wrong during the heat emergency is feeling lost in dealing in this week’s emergency, which will lose time to next week’s emergency. I lament that is what climate disruption looks like in practice.
We will get a report in Council on how we can update our emergency planning, and the Coroner will likely issue a report on provincial and regional responses, but I want to concentrate for now (and sorry, it has taken me some time to think about how to write this) on what happened here, in our community, especially in my neighbourhood of the Brow of the Hill, where many “sudden deaths” occurred.
New West Fire and Rescue and New Westminster Police responded to an unprecedented number of health emergencies and sudden death calls. We know the ambulance service failed – they simply could not dispatch people to calls fast enough, as there were not enough ambulances and crews available. This meant people at 911 couldn’t leave calls, and lines got backed up, causing E-Comm to fail. Firefighters were challenged to keep up, as they could not pass medical calls over the ambulances that were not arriving. As our fire trucks are not medical transports, Fire crews took the unprecedented step of calling taxis and having a member accompany patients to Hospital in that cab, so crews and equipment could move onto the next call, leaving our Firefighters under-staffed as many had to wait in the hospital for patients to be admitted, because the emergency room was slammed. Even as fire and police struggled to keep up and attend to “sudden death” calls, the coroner service phone lines were overwhelmed and at one point stopped responding.
It was a cascading failure, a demonstration we were simply not ready, as a City and as a Province. People died, leaving behind families and neighbours traumatized by the lack of response. I am afraid first responders were equally traumatized, as they had to operate in a broken and failing system that didn’t allow them to do the work they are trained for and dedicated to doing – protect and comfort the residents they serve. Instead, they spent three days in the stifling heat surrounded by the suffering and death of people they wanted to help. I cannot imagine, but once again, they deserve not just our recognition and gratitude, but a response – a way to fix this so they don’t have to go through it again.
Like many of you, I heard anecdotes about people who were in dangerous situations, and people who helped them out. A community member encountering an elderly man on the street who was disoriented after shopping for himself and his house-bound wife, with no access to cooling centre support because information was not available in his native language. A neighbour who saw a hyperthermic woman sitting in the driver’s seat of a car parked in front of his house, and took her in to cool in his basement overnight because she didn’t know of anywhere else to go and her apartment was not sustainable. Every neighbour-helping-neighbour story reminds us of the importance of community and compassion, but overshadows the story of the many people who surely fell through the cracks and were not lucky enough to have a good Samaritan help them through.
The City has a Heat Emergency plan, and it was invoked. Cooling centres were opened, communications around how to recognize and address heat stress and hyperthermia were distributed in the traditional way, outreach to impacted communities was initiated. City staff in community centres and first responders were prepared to operationalize the plan, carried water and ice and expected to be helping people. It turned out to not be nearly enough. I can be critical of the 911, Ambulance, and Coroner service failures and ask the Province to get this shit figured out right away, but we need to recognize at the same time the failures here at the local level.
First off, we learned (much like the rest of the Lower Mainland) that a plan that works for 32 degrees does not work for 40 degrees. This Heat Dome event was exacerbated by the high overnight lows – for a couple of days, temps never got below 25 degrees at night, so there was no opportunity for apartments to cool down or for people to get a comfortable sleep and build resilience. Cooling Centres that operate from 10:00am- 8:00pm are simply not enough in this situation. We have to figure out how to provide 24 hour centres, and how to staff them. We can also expand the opportunity for outdoor cooling with fountains and misters and tents, and the logistics of making them safe and accessible.
We also were not as effective as we need to be at communicating the seriousness of the heat situation. This was not a “regular” heat emergency, it was something different, and we should have seen that coming and taking measures to tell the community that. There is a language barrier (several, actually) we need to overcome, but there is also the physical barriers to getting information to the front doors of people who live in apartments, to getting information to people in the Uptown and Downtown commercial areas, and encouraging people to connect with their neighbours and the people in their buildings. Indeed, we may even want to regulate that building managers check in with every tenant at least once a day during a heat emergency, and provide resources to residents. This may be as lifesaving as regulating fire alarms.
This is so much our climate chickens coming home to roost. Our Emergency Planning (and this is reflected in the Emergency Response exercises performed in the region, where these plans are tested and refined) has traditionally centred around floods and earthquakes. The SARS outbreak added pandemic planning to that suite (which we were fortunate to have as we began our response to COVID) and Lac-Mégantic caused us to update our rail hazardous incident planning. We have cold temperature and warm temperature response plans, but the current scale of climate disruption is clearly going to lead us to re-think what a regional emergency is. Heat Domes and smoke events like last summer are going to need a new approach.
It is hard for government to admit we failed, but there is no doubt we did here, as a City and as a Province. We should have been better prepared, and we need to be better prepared. We need to communicate better and differently, and we need to assure First Responders are resourced to do the job of supporting people in dangerous times. We have work to do.