B.C.’s emergency response system is facing its first major test this weekend since buckling under an unprecedented and deadly heat wave in June.
Heat warnings were in place for much of the province, with daytime highs up to 39 C forecast in some parts of the interior, and highs on parts of the south coast into the low 30s.
E-Comm, the agency that handles 911 calls, said operators handled about 6,000 calls on Friday, above the seasonal daily average of about 5,000 but lower than the 8,000 they took on the worst day of June’s deadly heat wave.
Temperatures during that multi-day event soared much higher than the current heat, with unusually high overnight averages.
At least 569 people died of heat-related illness between June 20 and June 29, and Health Minister Adrian Dix announced major changes to the BC Ambulance Service in the wake of widespread criticism of the province’s response.
BC Ambulance Paramedics Union president Troy Clifford said Saturday the feeling on the front lines was that things had improved.
“I’m hearing that paramedics today are not as fatigued as they were last heat, obviously, but we’re still seeing incredible call volumes,” he said.
“I think the lesson learned was (activating) the emergency operations centre and emergency preparedness, that’s a key component of this. We’ve done this for years, but for some reason, the organization got away from that fundamental principle leading into that, and I can say with certainty since that day, it’s been up and running and preparing.”
On Friday, Dix laid out measures to prepare for the current round of heat, including an early activation of the emergency operations centre and pay incentives to shore up paramedic understaffing.
Management at hospitals and E-Comm was also directed to assist on the front lines.
“If you or a loved one experience heat-related illness and you need help, please call 911,” Dix said.
“The BC Ambulance Service is ready to save you. The new chief ambulance officer is taking steps to ensure people who call for help get help quickly.”
The province said it is also working with local governments and health authorities to ensure people knew about and have access to cooling centres to beat the heat.
In Langley, the Salvation Army Gateway of Hope opened its doors this weekend to act as a cooling centre.
Operations manager Julie Gilfillan said the hope is to support the city’s vulnerable.
“With the heat wave coming through, we wanted to make sure that seniors or any members of the community could come in and get water and sunscreen and hats and whatever they need to stay cool. We’ve got fans and air conditioning,” she said.
“We won’t turn anyone away, but we’ll also make sure we have PPE, masks, hand sanitizer, and make sure everyone is safe and cool all at the same time.”
The public is also being asked to step up and check on vulnerable friends, family members and neighbours during the heat.
People with chronic mental or physical health issues are at a higher risk, as are those who live alone or are socially isolated, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control.
People are also being reminded to drink plenty of water, to stay indoors, to keep blinds shut and to keep windows closed in the morning.