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B.C. is making changes after 619 people died from extreme heat last year. But will it be enough?

Jeanne Hansen’s sister Tracey McKinlay died as a result of extreme heat on June 28, 2021. 

“It’s hard not to feel guilty,” Hansen said. 

“We should have done a little bit more, you know, phoning Tracey wasn’t enough.”

She wishes she’d gone to her sister’s apartment in New Westminster, B.C., to check on her. 

Hansen says according to the coroner, McKinlay’s kidneys were weakened by medication she took for mental illness. And as temperatures soared, she died alone in her apartment.

According to a new report from the B.C. Coroner’s Service, 619 people died from extreme heat last summer — one of whom was McKinlay, who was 61.

The report released Tuesday calls on the provincial government to offer more support for vulnerable British Columbians the next time extreme heat blankets the province. 

This month B.C. is introducing a heat alert and response system to help residents when temperatures climb. Alerts will be issued through the national Alert Ready system, which is already being used for Amber Alerts, tsunami and wildfire warnings. 

The province has also created the Prepared B.C. Extreme Heat Guide, which offers advice on how to get ready for extreme heat and how to identify safety risks when it comes to hot weather.

But some say those efforts aren’t enough.

Adrian Dix, minister of health, and Mike Farnworth, minister of public safety, are pictured during a press conference regarding last year’s heat wave deaths in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Hansen says an alert wouldn’t have helped her sister, who suffered from mental illness; she didn’t have a phone and didn’t pay attention to the news.

“A lot of these folks don’t have the wherewithal to go on the Internet or call anyone,” she said. “They don’t want to leave their buildings.”

Gabrielle Peters, a disabled writer and policy analyst said there is not enough urgency behind the report or the provincial response, arguing the issue was not a lack of knowledge about the risk of heat, but the inability of poor, disabled and elderly people to escape it.

“People did not die because they didn’t have enough communications materials. People died because they were unable to escape the heat.”

While the coroner’s report recommends the Ministry of Health review the possibility of making air-conditioners and other cooling devices available to vulnerable people as medical equipment by Dec. 1, 2022, Peters points out the timeline will be too late should extreme heat hit the province this summer.

She also said the emphasis on public cooling centres ignores the reality that many disabled people — herself included — are unable to easily reach such spaces, particularly during extreme weather events.

“[I’d have to] haul myself into my wheelchair, wheel down into the outdoor heat and poor air quality and find a cooling, clean air space,” she said.

“That’s an absurd suggestion. It’s akin to telling somebody with a broken leg to get on the bus … and buy some crutches.”

 

Emergency services

According to the coroners’ report, the number of calls to 911 doubled at the heat dome’s peak. It said 54 per cent of heat dome-related cases were attended by paramedics with a median response time of 10 minutes and 25 seconds.

In 50 cases, paramedics took 30 minutes or longer from the time of the call until arrival. Callers to 911 were placed on hold for an extended period 17 times. Six callers were told there was no ambulance available at the time of their call. 

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic is pictured outside of St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver in June 2021. At the height of last year’s heat dome, six callers were told there was no ambulance available at the time of their call, according to the coroners’ report. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province is hiring more emergency response professionals, including 125 new full-time paramedics and 42 dispatchers, and adding 22 more ambulances. 

Troy Clifford, president of the union that represents paramedics and dispatchers in B.C., said he appreciates the efforts the province has made to address gaps in emergency response in the province, but still doesn’t believe emergency services is prepared to respond to another heat event.

“I’m not confident we have the capacity and the staffing to respond to another heat dome the way it needs to be [responded to],” he said.

He said the biggest challenge is recruitment and retention of paramedics, primarily because of wages. 

“It’s going to take a significant influx of funding and resources to get this on track.”

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