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New West suffers B.C.’s fourth highest death toll during summer heat event

Local and provincial initiatives needed to address future heat events
Heat wave getty
New Westminster had the fourth highest number of deaths of B.C. communities during the summer's heat dome.

New Westminster will be taking a two-pronged approached to dealing with future heat events in the city.

On Monday, the BC Coroners Service released data showing that this past summer's record-breaking heat claimed the lives of at least 595 British Columbians between June 18 and Aug. 12.

Narrowing in on the time between June 25 and July 1 (when a heat dome resulted in temperatures of 40 to nearly 50 degrees in some B.C. communities), 526 heat-related deaths were reported in the province. The 28 deaths recorded in New Westminster was the fourth highest of any community in B.C., trailing only  the province’s three most populated cities – Vancouver (99), Surrey (67) and Burnaby (63).

The City of New Westminster is reviewing the city’s response to the heat event. A heat dome occurs when the atmosphere traps hot ocean air.

“We certainly are doing a review of the event,” said Mayor Jonathan Cote. “We had heat protocols in place before the heat dome, but I think we fully recognize and acknowledge they weren’t designed and anticipating the type of heat event that we did experience.”

Cote said the city’s response also didn’t contemplate that a lot of the other systems, including ambulances and E-Comm, would not be able to perform through a crisis like that.

According to Cote, the city will be considering how it responds at the local level, but it will also be talking to the province about ways of ensuring the health-care system doesn’t collapse if these types of events occur in the future.

“I think it’s going to be a combination of how can we improve the work we do locally to help protect the community but it will also involve advocacy on how the provincial government needs to step up and make sure our emergency and health-care system is able to deal with these types of events,” he told the Record.

Locally, Cote said the city will be focusing on having a revised heat plan in place before next summer.

“I think we need to figure out what we can do as a local government to make sure we are providing the supports that we need to do,” he said. “An example is, we did activate and open up cooling centres in the city, but what we realized, as an example of a gap, is actually getting the word out.”

Cote said the city needs to ensure that citizens, particularly vulnerable residents and those most impacted by the heat, know that these facilities are available.

“We realized we needed to find better ways to reach people who would need cooling centres; that’s one example of an area we have identified that needs a lot more work and thought put into it,” he said. “But there is that much broader discussion about how do we make sure the ambulance service is able to respond to these (events).”

The BC Coroners Service expects to have completed individual investigations of each of the 595 heat-related deaths by early 2022. It will then convene a death review panel, consisting of subject-matter experts, who will create recommendations intended to prevent similar deaths.

According to the coroners service, the findings of the panel are expected to be publicly released in late spring 2022.

"While we expect the findings of the death review will significantly contribute to efforts to increase public safety, we must take steps to prepare for future extreme weather events now," said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, in a news release. "The effects of climate change are both real and unpredictable. Having a plan to regularly check in with loved ones who live alone, being aware of cooler and air-conditioned areas in your neighbourhood, and heeding early warnings about extreme weather are simple steps that will help ensure we are all properly prepared and safe."

Lapointe said the BC Coroners Service is committed to gathering as much information as possible about each of these deaths to inform future, evidence-based prevention efforts.

"I extend my sincere condolences to all of those who lost a loved one as a result of last summer's unprecedented heat dome,” she said. “By identifying patterns and factors in the tragic deaths that occurred unexpectedly last summer, our province will be in a better position to prevent future similar tragedies."

The BC Coroners Service considers a death heat-related when: the localized environment or the body temperature of a decedent is consistent with hyperthermia; or there is no direct temperature at the time of death, but there is evidence to support that heat had a significant causal effect on the death.


Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus

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