Climate Resilience: Strategies for Emergency Management During Heatwaves

Climate Resilience: Strategies for Emergency Management During Heatwaves

As climate change fuels the fire of extreme heat, emergency management stands at a crossroads of innovation and responsibility. This blog post presents a roadmap to safeguard lives, assets, property, and the economy amidst rising temperatures.

Extreme heat is a significant threat to emergency management. According to estimates by the American National Weather Service, heat has been the single largest contributor to weather-related deaths over the last 30 years.

Emergency management and the Incident Command System (ICS) have very clear priorities, its goals have always been to protect:

  • Life
  • Property
  • Environment
  • Economy

Let’s explore how each priority is affected by extreme heat and some steps that can be taken to help mitigate those effects.

Heat Impacts on Human Life

The human body functions in a narrow temperature window and multiple mechanisms in the body attempt to keep it within that optimal window. Extreme heat stresses every organ in the human body as it struggles to control its core temperature. The heart plays a crucial role in this, as it helps pump blood away from the central parts of the body to the skin. For people with pre-existing heart disease or conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, the extra strain placed on the heart by extreme heat can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Finally, if heat levels continue to increase, the body suffers from multi-organ failure and eventually death.

– Sameed Khatana “The Increasing Death Toll in the U.S. From Extreme Heat”, July 20, 2022

The risk to human life from heat is shared by both the public and responders, as Incident Commanders, it is our responsibility to ensure we are working to protect all our stakeholders.

As temperatures start to rise, the incident command system doesn’t have to wait for tragedy. Ongoing communication can be maintained with both our responders (prior to and during deployment) and the public which can help them minimize these heat effects. Weather forecasts are improving and becoming more localized, are you sharing them? The #1 Weather app in the Apple Store “The Weather Network” includes the ability to receive numerous weather-related notifications. The sooner our people can be notified the sooner they can put their training into practice.

Using the D4H system you can create a status board which can then include projected forecasts, along with steps to reduce risks and locations for cool-down shelters. With dangerous temperatures approaching, even without an incident being declared you can use your communication platform to inform and help the public be prepared.

Weather forecast in D4H

Heat Impacts on Property

In 2021, record temperatures well past 37C/99F in U.S. Pacific Northwest melted power cables and buckled roads. We’re consistently seeing records being set one day and broken the next.

In some places, the heat is so intense it has even melted power cables. In downtown Portland, the Portland Streetcar service shut down on Sunday, posting a picture on Twitter of a power cable with a hole burnt into it.

In an age where the Internet of Things (IoT) is able to feed information into our command center, we are given the new opportunity to share the effects in real-time with our residents. For example, let’s take an internet-enabled wind gauge installed on the bridge:

“If location labeled [Bridge] has a [Wind Speed] > [40knts] within [24hrs] Send Alert”

We often consider emergency management as the response, sending rescue trucks and personnel when an incident occurs. But as technology expands and devices are able to share information, tomorrow’s incident command system may simply be reading devices and informing the public, allowing an automated response to occur before that bridge collapses!

Heat Impacts on the Environment

Climate change is likely a major driver in increasing fire activity. Extreme heat waves are already 5 times more likely today than they were 150 years ago and are expected to become even more frequent as the planet continues to warm.

– James MacCarthy, Sasha Tyukavina, Mikaela Weisse and Nancy Harris “New Data Confirms: Forest Fires Are Getting Worse”, August 17, 2022

Annual tree cover loss

Tree Loss Graph Source

The North American Boreal Forest biome as defined in Brandt (2009) is estimated to harbor 25% of the world’s remaining intact forests. This is a large potential disaster, especially as climate change includes longer wildfire seasons, increasing fire weather severity, increasing wildfire occurrence, and increasing fire intensity and area burned.

While your Incident Action Plan (IAP) can’t stop these effects, emergency managers can take steps to reduce their effect. In Canada, there is a proven program to help mitigate the effects of Forest Fires, FireSmart.

Implementing wildfire initiatives will take time due to the need for capacity and capability re-alignment, but by supporting these initiatives in emergency management, we take steps to support building more resilient communities.

Heat Impacts on the Economy

Tourism is a large part of our economy, and people love to flock to warm weather. Extreme heat is not quite as attractive. As we discussed, it places extreme pressure on the body and can ignite more trouble in our forests. One of the key impacts is the impact of the forest fire smoke on outdoor activities.

Bc forest fire and smoke over the mountain

Even without respiratory complications, smoke blocks the views of the mountain tops, makes exertion dangerous, and makes outdoor adventures challenging.

Aug 18 2023 13 59 52

While technology resources exist to inform the public about forest fire smoke (FireSmoke.ca and EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI) forecasts) it is still our responsibility as emergency managers to ensure our stakeholders know about this information and know how and when to use it. Check out this emergency management guide to keeping the public informed during a disaster and this guide for successful interagency collaboration during a disaster.

Scientists say the warming climate is making both heat waves and droughts more frequent and intense. We need to ensure both our responders and the public are kept informed. This includes advance notification when risks are high and ensuring they know how to reduce the risks.

About the Author

For over seven years, Clinton Boyda has led a regional municipal agency in Alberta, Canada, as the Director of Emergency Management (DEM). Representing ten municipalities, Clinton has seen how important a tool like D4H is to help Emergency Managers keep organized during all phases of a disaster. Also, as a Search and Rescue First Responder, he has seen the value D4H provides to manage certifications, callouts, and incident reports. What effects of extreme heat have impacted your emergency management?

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