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Emergency alerts for extreme heat could save lives, experts say

General view of people enjoying the nice weather at Cherry Beach while observing social distancing in downtown Toronto on June 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Dominic Chan

Experts say sending emergency alerts during extreme heat events could save lives, but a multi-faceted approach to warning the public is needed in order to reach the most vulnerable residents and help them take action.

Many Ontarians received an emergency alert on their mobile phones in mid-May advising them to seek shelter as a deadly storm swept across the province, but experts say such alerts can also be employed for major heat events, including those that last several days — like the one currently playing out in Ontario.

Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, said more extreme heat events are on the horizon due to climate change, pointing to a recent report he co-authored, which projects that extreme temperatures and heat waves in Canada will become more severe in the future.

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The Irreversible Extreme Heat: Protecting Canadians and Communities From a Lethal Future report notes that many changes caused by past and future greenhouse-gas emissions will be irreversible for centuries to millennia and that Canada is warming, on average, at twice the global rate — annual mean temperatures increased by 1.7 C between 1948 and 2016.

To better respond to extreme heat events, Feltmate said jurisdictions across Canada should develop a heat alert system similar to the one launched in British Columbia last month to warn of potentially deadly temperatures.

The B.C. Heat Alert and Response System was developed after the province recorded nearly 600 heat-related fatalities during last summer’s so-called heat dome.

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“(The deaths are) often presented within the context of being a B.C. phenomena, but quite frankly, that extreme heat event could have hit Winnipeg, it could have been Toronto, it could have been Montreal, it could have been Halifax, it could hit anywhere in the country. It just happened to have hit B.C.,” Feltmate said.

“But every other province and certainly major to minor city, quite frankly, in the country should take guidance from that which has now been announced in British Columbia to enhance safety.”

Gordon McBean, professor emeritus and director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at Western University, said residents need to be warned to seek cooler spaces so that they’re not in harm’s way.

He added that such alert systems should be consistent across jurisdictions and complement each other to forewarn residents in neighbouring regions that they may see a similar extreme heat event come their way.

“There isaneed for co-ordination of these (systems) across the country. We need to have information and warning systems that are consistent from province to province,” said McBean, who spent decades as a climate scientist with Environment Canada.

Click to play video: 'Feeling the heat: an update on the summer forecast'
Feeling the heat: an update on the summer forecast

However, both Feltmate and McBean cautioned that some of the most vulnerable people during heat waves are the elderly and the homeless, who may not have access to the technology required to receive alerts sent through cellphones and over broadcast channels.

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Feltmate said those vulnerable individuals should be regularly checked in on by community members or loved onesduring heat waves to ensure that they’re properly hydrated, whether they need help getting to a cooling centre, or if they have access to working fans or air conditioning.

“We need people looking out for them,” he said.

“That starts with mapping out where are they to begin with, and then when the heat wave takes place, we need somebody checking in on them once or twice a day.”

McBean suggested there also needs to be a system that gets critical information about extreme heat events and emergencies delivered to all residents, such as what they should do to prepare for and respond to extreme heat.

“We do have to find ways of providing this information in ways that the homeless people, the elderly and those who don’t have access to (technology that receives alerts), and where there may be language barriers as well, that they get that information,” he said.

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The time to enact extreme heat preparedness across the country is now, Feltmate said, because heat tends to be much deadlier than other extreme weather events, like the windstorm that barrelled through much of Ontario in May.

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“During flooding and wildfires, or extreme wind events that we just saw recently, generally speaking, we have zero deaths or a low number,” he said.

“With extreme heat, it’s in a whole other category. When things go wrong with extreme heat, the death toll can be in the hundreds, if not thousands, and this is why we have to move forward with a strong sense of urgency to counter the effects of extreme heat right now.”

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