The BC Coroners Service released its review of heat-related deaths from summer 2021 this morning and it recommends several measures to reduce mortality during future extreme heat events.
More than 600 people died from heat-related illness between June 25 and July 1 when a heat dome formed over the province and sent daytime temperatures above 40°C in many parts of BC. Nighttime temperatures offered little relief, which is uncharacteristic for the region.
The BC Coroners Service concluded 98% of heat dome deaths occurred indoors. Many of them lived “socially or materially deprived areas” without access to air conditioning or fans.
More than three-quarters of the dead were 70 years old or older and more than half of the people who died lived alone.
People with certain chronic illnesses made up a greater proportion of the deaths, with conditions including schizophrenia, substance-use disorder, epilepsy, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, asthma, mood and anxiety disorders, and diabetes.
Many people died during the heat dome and even more called for help — 911 calls doubled during the period of extreme heat. But BC Emergency Health Services wasn’t equipped to deal with the spike. Many British Columbians who called 911 were put on hold and in 50 instances paramedics took longer than 30 minutes to arrive. In six instances, callers were told there was no ambulance available in their area.
Although the summer forecast this year looks milder compared to last year, many are calling on the government to be better prepared and help vulnerable populations. The BC Coroners Service made several recommendations.
Recommendations for future heat waves
Heat alert system
First of all, the BC Coroners Service asked the province to create a coordinated provincial heat alert response system, noting that in 2021 there was a lag between warnings from Environment Canada and action by local governments.
On Monday Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and Health Minister Adrian Dix announced emergency alert push notifications would be sent to people’s cell phones going forward — similar to Amber Alerts.
But the government stopped short of help measures for people living in the province and instead encouraged do-it-yourself measures including purchasing a digital thermometer and installing curtains on windows.
Supports for vulnerable populations
By December 1, 2022, the BC Coroners Service wants the government to review whether it could issue cooling devices (such as air conditioners) to people at risk of dying during a heat wave by classifying them as medical devices.
On Monday, government officials wouldn’t say whether they’d consider purchasing air conditioners for people in vulnerable populations.
Other support recommendations included Home and Community Care Services compiling lists of people with chronic illness or mobility issues who would be vulnerable in a heat wave, and for the Union of BC Municipalities to consider adopting wellness checks during extreme heat events.
Heat prevention and long-term mitigation
The BC Coroners Service recommends BC update its building codes to require active and passive cooling mechanisms in all new housing construction. In addition, it asked the government to provide rebates to homeowners who renovate their homes to include active and passive cooling mechanisms.
Vancouver has already required air cooling in all new homes built in 2025 or later.
Local governments should also prioritize renewing the tree canopy to reduce urban heat, and Emergency Management BC should distribute an Extreme Heat Preparedness Guide this summer with tips on self-care during a heat wave.
Response from BC government
Health Minister Adrian Dix and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth held a news conference Tuesday afternoon to respond to the report.
They said the government was committed to looking at each of the recommendations to see what could be implemented — including examining whether rebates for air conditioners would be feasible.
He also went over changes made to the ambulance service last summer following the heat wave. BC has 42 more call-takers and 125 new urban ambulance position than it did last summer, and has a new clinical safety plan, director of disaster management, additional capacity, and given ambulance staff lightweight uniforms for summer calls.
“The best way to deal with these things is to take action, and that is what we will do based on the Coroners report today,” Dix said.