The city health department's heat alert strategy is vague and ineffectual. We need a detailed plan that reaches and protects our most vulnerable residents.
By Tom Cooper
Published June 07, 2007
On the last day of May, the temperature hit 30 degrees Celsius in Hamilton (with the humidex it felt like 38), and summer was still three weeks from officially beginning.
Last week, the City's Board of Health voted to endorse [PDF] the Hamilton Public Health Department's new heat alert strategy.
In the past, Hamilton called "heat alerts" when Toronto's Board of Health did. It was suggested that Hamilton's temperatures were sufficiently different from Toronto's that it was sometimes inappropriate to call heat alerts in Hamilton at the same time the Toronto Board of Health called theirs.
At the Board of Health, Matthew Hodge, the City's Associate Medical Officer of Health referred to the previous alert system as the "stupid QEW model". Last August, the health department unilaterally canceled the old program.
Now the city has a new program; but has the the stupid QEW model been replaced by the toothless Main Street West model?
To call the recommendations a "strategy" is puttting it generously. Hamilton's new heat alert policy consists mainly of "media advisories" and the possibility of further actions such as opening a cooling centre downtown "if conditions warrant".
The recommendation's crux seems to read: wait until a heat wave is upon us and then figure out what to do.
A 'cooling centre if necessary, but not necessarily a cooling centre' approach, to steal a political idiom from Prime Minister Mackenzie King, is hardly reassuring for a vulnerable city.
Senior citizens, persons with disabilities, people who are homeless and families living in low income, poorly ventilated housing are particularly at risk during an extreme heat event.
Many in the community, including community health care professionals, poverty organizations and affordable housing advocates, argued that Hamilton should be expanding and improving its heat alert response system.
It was only two years ago in 2005 that we experienced a 30/30 summer (thirty days in which the temperature was at or above 30 degrees Celsius). Humidex readings were through the roof.
Even last summer, during three days of extreme heat at the beginning of August, Hamilton experienced extremely high temperatures.
I had occasion to visit a couple of rooming house complexes in central Hamilton that were oppressively hot and humid.
The YMCA men's residence registered 34 degrees, while another rooming house on King Street West had an indoor temperature of nearly 38 degrees (I could only imagine that the humidex readings were in the high 40s).
The health impacts of heat exposure have become well known in recent years. Chicago suffered 700 deaths during a five-day heat wave in 1995. Europe had 27,000 fatalities - many elderly and poor - in 2003 during that continent's two week heat wave.
Those people in Chicago and Europe died because governments were not prepared, could not respond quickly once the crisis was upon them, and quite frankly did not think "it could happen" there.
The public health department has suggested that night time cooling in Hamilton may prevent significant health impacts from periods of extreme heat.
However, many low income tenants contend that night time cooling is not sufficient in many low income rental housing complexes, such as rooming houses, residential care facilities or high rise multi-residential apartment buildings.
In some rooming houses, windows do not open sufficiently. Many high rise apartment buildings trap heat for many, many hours.
Six tenants died in rooming houses [Cached link] in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto during extreme heat in 2005.
The Public Health Department has further contended that Hamilton's heat is not as extreme as Toronto as a result of the urban heat island effect.
But according to Environment Canada, the City of Hamilton has the third highest annual humidex readings in Canada - ahead of Toronto.
Many health experts use the humidex reading to analyze the ill affects of health.
Source: Environment Canada (select "High humidex days above 35°" from dropdown list and click Submit)
The community expects more concrete and proactive responses, given that the health department has had ten months to develop a plan of action. We know summers are getting hotter. It only makes sense to prepare.
Some of Hamilton's neighbours are doing very progressive things. Toronto is expanding cooling centre access, will offer free public transit for people to get to those centres, plus is doing very assertive outreach to vulnerable tenants in care homes and rooming houses.
On top of that, there are ongoing discussions from the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee about developing new bylaws - such as a maximum temperature bylaw that Hamilton should strongly consider.
Hamilton must do more. The town of Tillsonberg (population: 15,000) opened three cooling centres during heat alerts last summer.
Surely Hamilton can at least meet Tillsonberg's response?
During last week's Board of Health Meeting, Hamilton's Solutions for Housing Action Committee, the Roomers and Boarders Committee and Hamilton's Community Legal Clinics made recommendations for a more effective heat alert strategy and will continue to push forward to ensure Hamilton is better prepared for extreme weather.
Immediate recommendations for Summer, 2007:
Pilot Project Cooling Centre: Develop a Pilot Project Cooling Centre in a low income/high intensity neighbourhood during the summer of 2007. Riverdale community centre may be an excellent location as there are many multi-residential complexes near by housing low income tenants. The Riverdale community centre has air conditioning and a pool. It would be easily accessible.
Intensive Outreach: Initiate intensive outreach to vulnerable residents in rooming houses and RCFs during heat alerts this summer so they are made aware of the dangers of heat exposure and have resources. Pro-active inspections would provide an inventory of conditions in some low income housing complexes.
Consult Front-Line Workers: Perhaps most importantly, Public Health must consult with those on the front lines of community health care, seniors, tenants in low income housing and others before an extreme weather event is upon in order to adequately prepare responses.
Map At-Risk Neighbourhoods: Data must be collected from local hospitals and medical centres during the summer months with an eye towards mapping neighbourhoods in which heat stroke, dehydration and other heat-related ailments may be more prevalent during extreme heat events so that a community response can be tailored in subsequent years.
Outrach to Landlords: Public Health should consider outreach to landlords to look at retrofits that may reduce temperatures in multi-residential buildings. "White roof" projects are cost effective ways of significantly reducing temperatures in high-rises.
Also, Landlords in large buildings could be mandated to keep "air conditioned common rooms" available to tenants who may require a space to escape oppressive heat.
Maximum Temperature By-law: City Council should consider the creation of a maximum temperature by-law in multi-residential complexes (rooming houses, RCFs and multi-residential buildings).
Neighbourhood Cooling Centres: Smaller, neighbourhood amenities such as recreation centres, local schools, churches or community halls should be enlisted to open up as cooling centres when necessary.
These locations may be a far more effective way of getting vulnerable individuals out of the heat rather than having one large centrally located cooling centre.
Community Registry: The City should work with community organizations on the establishment of a volunteer program that can work to develop a registry to check on seniors, persons with disabilities, and any people who are isolated during times of extreme heat.