Climate Change and Health: Adaptation Bulletin

Number 4
June 2014
ISSN: 1920-2709

Developing Heat Alert and Response
Systems in Urban and Rural Communities

Extreme Heat as a Health Risk

Rural Communities
Urban Communities

Extreme heat events, also known as heat waves, pose a growing public health risk in Canada as a result of a changing climate. Heat-related deaths are preventable and Heat Alert and Response Systems (HARS) can help protect individuals and communities from the health impacts of extreme heatfootnote 1.

Health Canada has developed a best practices guidebook for developing a HARS. The Guidebook helps users take into consideration community specific vulnerabilities and identify appropriate outreach and response activities (Figure 1). Coupled with a heat-health vulnerability assessment, decision-makers are able to identify populations requiring assistance during extreme heat eventsfootnote 2.

Figure 1: Community HARS and preventative actions to reduce heat-health risks

Description - Figure 1

The figure includes information pertaining to the different components of a Community HARS with preventative actions to reduce heat-health risks. The figure is a circle with four layers. Under the broad category of "Preventative Actions" (layer 1, outer layer), there are seven specific actions (layer 2: reduce urban heat island effect, promote healthy communities and individuals, modify transportation policies, improve social capital and social networks, build climate resiliency, assess heat-health vulnerability and reduce green-house gases. The "Heat Alert and Response System" (layer 3) has 5 core elements (layer 4) that is depicted as five puzzle pieces: Alert Protocol, Community Response Plan, Communications Plan, Evaluation Plan and Community Mobilization and Engagement. Specifically:

  • The Alert Protocol specifies to identify heat-health risks and activate and deactivate the communication and response plans.
  • The Community Response Plan actions include the need to be involved in stakeholder outreach and assist vulnerable people.
  • The Communication Plan highlights the need to increase awareness, deliver education about adaptation, connect partners, and alert citizens and stakeholders.
  • The Evaluation Plan actions are to improve HARS, validate measures, and identify improvement opportunities.
  • Community Mobilization and Engagement is important for all other core elements and overlaps with Alert Protocol, Community Response Plan, Communication Plan, and Evaluation Plan.

Challenges and opportunities in urban and rural communities in protecting health from extreme heat

Differences in urban and rural communities based upon demographic make-up, access to public services and the built environment may affect their resilience to extreme heat events. Between 2008 and 2011, the rural community of Melita in Manitoba's Assiniboine Regional Health Authority (ARHA)footnote3 and the urban community of Windsor, Ontario established HARS with support from Health Canada. Comparison of HARS development in Windsor and Melita revealed important differences between these communities including:

  • Exposure to heat stress
  • Identification of vulnerable populations
  • Cooling options for high risk populations
  • Efforts to raise awareness to promote protective behaviours

Knowledge of how urban and rural communities differ in respect to heat-health vulnerability can provide public health and emergency management officials in Canada with information to help reduce health risks. Examples of adaptation options available to these types of communities to help protect vulnerable populations are presented in Table 1.

Table 1: Examples of heat-health adaptation options for urban and rural communities footnote4
Urban Communities Rural Communities
Reducing exposure to heat stress
  • Mitigate the urban heat island
  • Optimize thermal comfort in key areas (e.g., playgrounds, schools, parks, downtown cores)
  • Promote alternative work hours to reduce heat exposure for some occupational groups
  • Collaborate with emergency services and regional public health authorities to increase support and coordination
Identification of vulnerable populations
  • Analyse the local relationship between temperature and mortality and morbidity (data permitting)
  • Estimate heat-health risk using data from nearby communities and historical records (e.g., health, environmental data)
Cooling options for high risk populations
  • Provide free public transit for vulnerable populations during extreme heat events
  • Designate cooling rooms in high rise apartment buildings
  • Distribute fans to rooming house residents
  • Extend the hours of city wading pools, splash pads, swimming pools, libraries, community centres
  • Optimize the use of air conditioned vehicles (school buses, Handi-vans, Para Transpo) during heat emergencies to transport vulnerable people to cooling locations
  • Employ social networks (e.g., care givers, community groups) for preparedness and response actions
Promoting protective behaviours
  • Create a communication and information sharing "hub" with stakeholders
  • Utilize local media (e.g., newspapers, radio, web, TV) for heat alerts
  • Provide information on heat-health and places to cool down in multiple languages
  • Communicate heat alerts through automated email blasts open to the public
  • Utilize social networks (e.g., care givers, community groups) to raise awareness of health risks and adaptations
  • Raise awareness of farmers and agricultural workers of health risks

Health Canada is working with partners at all levels of government to increase the resiliency of Canadians to the health impacts of extreme heat events
(Climate Change and Health).

Additional Resources:

Best Practices Guidebook
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