Skip to content

New West prepares plan to respond to extreme heat and address “shortcomings”

More than two dozen New Westminster residents died during 2021 heat dome
Heat wave (Getty)
New Westminster has been updating its heat response plan since last summer's record-breaking temperatures and heat-related deaths.

Cooling centres, extended hours at civic facilities and the potential for firefighters to set up a spray area are just some of the ways the city could respond to future heat events.

A report to council about the city's heat response plan states that actions taken by the city during the June 2021 heat wave saved lives – but at least 28 citizens died because of an inability or reluctance to access resources available to combat the extreme heat. The city is adopting a series of actions to strengthen its ability to reduce further loss of life in heat events.

The BC Coroners Service has reported that British Columbians aged 60 years and older accounted for 91% of the heat-related deaths registered during the week of last summer’s heat dome – when temperatures across southwest B.C. saw five consecutive days of high 30 C and low 40 C temperatures.

Cory Hansen, the city’s emergency planning coordinator, said a lot of work is underway related to the community’s response to emergencies.

“We do have a plan to basically put a lot of pre-planning out to the city and make it known that we are going to be prepared this summer, but we want residents to be prepared as well,” she said. “So we are going to be bringing information out during Emergency Preparedness Week. We are targeting seniors’ groups. We will be at Century House, we will be putting information out to residents and that as well, just informing them where they can get information and just reminding them of the events of the heat and how they do need to be prepared.”

Acting fire Chief Erin Williams said a lot of emergency management work has been done since last summer’s heat dome. He said one of the biggest lessons learned through that event was that the city can’t depend on regional assistance and regional support during a regional event, such as a heat dome or a heat wave.

“We were left on our own and we didn’t have the supports of the agencies that we can normally depend on,” he said. “So, one of the approaches we have taken is to build capacity into our emergency management program.”

Williams said a “more corporate approach” is being developed, which will be effective as it will allow the workload to be spread amongst city staff. He said the emergency management office is also exploring ways to better connect with seniors groups and vulnerable populations in New West.

Preparing for summer 2022

As summer approaches, the city’s emergency management office is monitoring weather patterns and trends. It updated the city’s extreme heat response plan and will review it annually.

As part of a Level 1 response – which would occur when temperatures are forecast to be 27 C at Vancouver Airport, the city will activate its emergency operations centre and issue an alert.

In cases where Environment Canada issues an “extreme heat warning/special weather statement” because two days of extreme heat are forecast – or the City of New Westminster deems there to be a need for a city-initiated response – a Level 2 activation would occur.

According to a report to council, during a Level 2 activation, the extreme heat criteria indicates temperatures at which the expected risk to the public is extremely high and a larger increase in deaths in the community is expected.

These are some of the responses the city is considering as part of its response to heat events:

* Activation of the city’s emergency operation centre.

* Public outreach and communication to vulnerable populations, property managers, non-profits, faith-based groups and others.

* Activation of cooling venues.

* Set up and support water distribution points in the city.

* Possible extension of wading pool and spray park hours, as well as hours at city facilities.

* Monitoring of call volumes for police and fire departments in response to heat.

* Possible use or setup of New Westminster Fire and Rescue apparatus in targeted areas to set up a spray area.

In an extreme heat event, the city would consider door-to-door canvassing to identify higher-risk buildings. This would be done by fire inspectors and other city staff.

The city is currently working on the development of CARS – community action response staff. Staff in other positions would be redeployed from their regular duties in times of “emergent need” such as heat domes and other emergencies in the city, when the emergency management office requires additional staff.

“Basically they will be redeployed in those rare occasions where we do need extra support and people,” Hansen said. “Hopefully this year there is no heat dome – it’s supposed to be dry and hot – but it’s a rare occasion where we do have an emergency and we need extra staff.”

Williams said the city is taking a “two-pronged” approach to dealing with heat events by including a corporate response that involves city staff and by increasing community involvement in being prepared.

Apartment concerns

Council members voiced support for including property managers in the public outreach and communications plan for people who need to be “activated” during an extreme heat event.

“Just looking at where the most incidents were, we know – there is no surprise – it was the Brow of the Hill. It’s the three- and four-storey walk-ups. It was expected,” said Coun. Nadine Nakagawa. “But clearly there is people who have access to buildings and have access to the entire tenants’ list and can communicate with them, so that is really great.”

Coun. Chinu Das said it’s important to have them on board because cooling systems are “severely lacking” in the older apartment buildings in the city.

Coun. Chuck Puchmayr said he supports a corporate approach in combination with a community approach that includes faith-based groups that may have facilities where people can go in emergency situations. With many apartment owners having done away with on-site managers, he said it will be interesting to see how many local buildings still have on-site managers.

“If they don’t, we really need to work strongly in those buildings to create an understanding of what is available in the event of these types of emergencies,” he said.

Mayor Jonathan Cote said last year’s heat dome was an unprecedented event but it’s likely the region will be facing more prolonged heat events in the coming years.

“I appreciate the time our staff teams have spent since the event really investigating and looking into what worked and what are the areas where we weren’t successful because I think it is important to take those hard evaluations,” he said. “We know that there were a lot of vulnerable people, in particular, that suffered a lot, and there were that were lives lost due to the heat event last year.”

In response to last summer’s extreme heat, Cote said the city quickly put a number of things together, including cooling centre, but it became apparent there was a barrier to the communication and a barrier to connecting some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens to cooling centres and other services.

“They weren’t able to get the information they needed and they weren’t able to get to the places where they needed help. … I really appreciate that we are taking the time locally to recognize that we need to step up, we need to do better locally for these types of events,” he said. “I really appreciate the thoughtfulness that staff are putting in to really address the barriers and shortcomings with the work that occurred last year.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus
Email [email protected]