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Editorial: Heat dome exposed problems in B.C.'s emergency response systems

Alerting people to extreme weather only goes so far. Making sure emergencies can be met with a reasonable response is also key to preventing future harms.
delta, bc heat dome
The 2021 heat dome exposed some major problems in British Columbia's emergency response system, particularly for the province's most vulnerable citizens.

When it comes to extreme weather like the heat dome that gripped B.C. close to a year ago, there are several steps needed to ensure public safety. The first is alerting people that unusual weather is on the way. The other, more important and arguably more difficult steps, are letting people know what to do in response and making sure they have the practical ability to follow through.

This week the province announced a new system that will warn residents when temperatures are expected to remain above normal for two or more consecutive days, and a second emergency alert level for extreme conditions like last summer’s heat dome.

This is a good start. Unfortunately, as this week’s coroner’s report on the heat dome deaths made clear, those most vulnerable to extreme conditions were also the least able to take actions to help themselves. In many cases medical conditions added a level of risk those people may have been unaware of or made them less likely to act on warnings. That would have been true whether or not they’d got a warning.

A great many of the people who died in last summer’s extreme heat were housebound elderly people living alone in buildings without air conditioning.

The coroner’s report made a number of excellent recommendations, which we would do well to heed. In the short term, we must do better to look out for the most vulnerable, including making fans and air conditioners available on an emergency basis.

Lasting solutions, however, lie in more systemic changes such as new building standards that make requirements for cooling mandatory, and ensuring adequate response is possible from emergency responders.

With climate change, we know extreme temperatures will become more frequent. We better be prepared.