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Paramedics and firefighters place a man in an ambulance after responding to an SRO in the Downtown Eastside during a heat wave in Vancouver, on June 29, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

One year after a record-shattering heat wave that killed hundreds of people in British Columbia, the province is launching a heat alert system to warn of potentially deadly temperatures.

The B.C. government made the announcement on Monday, two weeks before the start of summer. The BC Coroners Service is expected on Tuesday to issue its final report on last year’s almost 600 heat-related deaths, with recommendations on how to prevent similar outcomes.

For extreme heat emergencies, the province is prepared to issue direct-to-cellphone alerts through the national Alert Ready system, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth said at the announcement.

The provincial government has faced criticism for its reluctance to use the Alert Ready system during last year’s extreme heat, wildfires and flooding. Since mid-2018, when jurisdictions across Canada first received access to the cellphone-alerting technology, B.C. has only used it once – for an Amber Alert in late March. Alberta, in comparison, has used it 87 times, for events such as wildfires, tornadoes and floods.

In early May, B.C. announced that it would adopt the alerting system for natural disasters such as wildfires and floods, but not for extreme heat. Mr. Farnworth said at the time that there was still work to be done on that component, such as determining what temperatures would trigger the alerts.

“The impact of last year’s heat dome was devastating for our province and for those who lost loved ones,” Mr. Farnworth said at Monday’s announcement. “After last year’s event, it was clear we needed to take a hard look at our response to extreme heat events and to take steps to ensure we’ve prepared for more of these events in the future.”

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The BC Heat Alert and Response System will issue two types of alerts: heat warnings and extreme heat emergencies. Both will be intended to signal to government and local health authorities that they should immediately enact local heat plans and issue information on how people can protect themselves.

Health Minister Adrian Dix told reporters on Monday that a $189-million Community Emergency Preparedness Fund, administered through the Union of BC Municipalities, will assist First Nations and local governments in funding initiatives such as evacuation planning and climate adaptation.

The temperatures that will trigger the heat warnings will vary across the province. In the Lower Mainland, for example, the threshold is two days of anticipated daytime highs of 29 degrees, with nighttime lows of 16 degrees. In the eastern Fraser Valley, it is 33 degrees daytime and 17 degrees nighttime. In the Okanagan, the trigger is 35 degrees daytime and 18 degrees nighttime, while in the northwest it is 28 degrees daytime and 13 degrees nighttime.

The province will declare extreme heat emergencies when the warning criteria have been met and temperatures are expected to “substantively” increase for three or more consecutive days, according to information provided by the government.

Monday’s announcement also included information on the province’s efforts to ready its emergency medical system for future disasters. Mr. Dix said BC Emergency Health Services – the agency that provides prehospital emergency services and interfacility patient transfers and oversees the BC Ambulance Service – has created a new clinical safety plan to guide its response during extreme heat events.

“This plan includes several measures to ensure our ambulance system is ready to respond to a significant increase in 911 calls during a heat emergency,” Mr. Dix said. “For instance, staff may be reassigned to support areas experiencing higher call volumes, and we may take measures to reduce turnaround times at hospitals.”

At the height of last summer’s heat dome – when temperatures reached 49.6 degrees in Lytton, B.C. – some people who phoned 911 were met with busy signals. Those who got through were told it could be upward of 10 hours before ambulances arrived. Police agencies were unable to provide accurate numbers of suspected heat-related deaths because the numbers kept growing as people checked on their loved ones.

Mr. Dix said the province has since added 125 new full-time paramedics in urban areas, 42 new dispatcher positions and 22 new ambulances. And B.C. has converted 24 ambulance stations from on-call to permanent paramedic staffing, improving service in many rural communities, he said.

At least 595 people died from the heat in the province between June 18 and Aug. 12, 2021, according to the BC Coroners Service. People aged 70 and older accounted for 69 per cent of the deaths, and almost all – 96 per cent – died at home. The BC Centre for Disease Control calculated that there were about 740 more deaths in the province between July 25 and June 2 than there would have been in a normal year.

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