An Effective Heat Alert Program

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 04, 2006

(This article has been updated.)

At the beginning of this week, the City of Hamilton's health department unilaterally cancelled its heat alert program (apparently in violation of its own process change policy), claiming that the heat alerts were ineffective and unwarranted.

The public response was uniformily outraged. Angry letters started pouring forth and poverty activists cried foul. The Hamilton Spectator editors, who recognize a safe rhetorical stance when they see one, came out swinging:

It's still important to issue public reminders that people should drink plenty of fluids, not leave children in parked cars, stay out of the sun and avoid strenuous activities. But that's nowhere near enough.

After an embarrassing few days of unremitting criticism, the health department reinstated the program, albeit maintaining callously that the dangers of extreme heat in the city may be overstated.

In an email to city councillors, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's tepid Medical Officer of Health, argued that Hamilton does not "have the same level of safety concerns" as those people who died during the notorious 1995 heat wave that killed hundreds of people in Chicago.

(Dr. Richardson has a history of hiding behind inertial skepticism over public health dangers. Part of the reason the city still doesn't have a decent policy on cosmetic pesticides, for example, is that the health department is unwilling to commit to the conclusion that pesticides are dangerous for human health, despite the fact that numerous reports by medical associations, including an exhaustive study by the Ontario College of Family Physicians, have found positive relationships between pesticide use and illnesses including brain cancer, childhood leukemia, and amyelotropic lateral sclerosis, and support municipal bans on cosmetic pesticide use.)

But notwithstanding Dr. Richardson's reticence, let me break ranks for a moment and come to the health department's defence. They're right about one thing: as Hamilton's heat alerts are currently issued, they really are ineffective. The alerts don't get to the people who need to heed them the most, and they don't trigger any changes in public policy to help people address the danger of extreme heat.

When the health department issues a heat alert, the following should happen as a minimum:

Currently, Hamilton does none of these things. There's an organization in the city that can establish a proper response to extreme heat, and that organization is City Council, which ultimately controls the purse strings and decides what's worth funding.

While it's true that the health department's decision was as clumsy as it was callous, there's no question that the move got people's attention. Councillor Sam Merulla (Ward 4) is openly calling for the city to establish a comprehensive heat program.

In a more general sense, the city needs to have a good think about how to arrange our neighbourhoods in the safest manner possible. With global energy supplies going into decline, it's going to be harder and more expensive to keep the air conditioners running in each individual home, so we will have to start cooperating to stay alive and safe.

After the fatal 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed hundreds of residents, mostly isolated poor people, a young sociologist named Eric Klinenberg studied two adjacent neighbourhoods that had similar socioeconomic patterns but highly divergent death rates.

He found that North Lawndale, which had a high death rate, also had a high separation of uses between homes and businesses and very little street life. Residents had few social contacts and were fearful of leaving their homes or of opening the door to volunteers. They literally died holed up in isolation in their homes.

In South Lawndale, by contrast, homes and businesses were mixed closely and street life was very social. Residents left their homes readily and went to local air-conditioned shops, libraries, and the homes of family and friends to bear the heat more safely.

As Klinenberg described it, the neighbourhood had "high population density, busy commercial life in the streets, and vibrant public spaces," which dramatically lowered the death rate.

As Hamilton heads into a long era of more frequent and more severe heat waves, we desperately need to re-think the way we arrange our neighbourhoods and civic amenities. Many lives will depend on creating the "vibrant public spaces" that served the residents of South Lawndale so heroically in 1995.

Update: This article originally reported that Sam Merulla was the councillor for Ward 3. He is actually the councillor for Ward 4. Jump to the changed section.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By jason (registered) | Posted August 04, 2006 at 09:27:33

wow. fascinating. I'd never heard that report from Chicago. We really are stupid in how we do things aren't we?

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By (anonymous) | Posted October 19, 2006 at 10:49:19

as i understand it one of the cooling stations downtown is the core who gets the alerts and makes preparations for an influx of persons.

if the core or any other cooling station doesn't get the alerts from the health department then they don't have the ability to make their facilities, drinking water etc., available.

i believe the hamilton spectator reacted because the removal of heat alerts was on ctv's marqee announcing it to canada - so they had no choice but to say something that shows they care.

as for the health department - the spec reported that three people on the committee made the decision - two that work for c.o.a.s.t a crisis hotline out of st. jo's hospital.

they made this decision wthout a quorum and in compliance with the legislation governing health boards which is the health promotion and protection act.

hamilton is stupid in how it does things - especially our "professionals" like the health department.

i find dr. richardson's response incredibly ignorant, insensitive and an attitude that was similar to medical professionals during the
sars crisis. after an inquiry, justice campbell found the medical practitioners and political figures patently incompetent.

perhaps mayor diianni, being the chair of that department, should consider replacing the medical officer of health if they can't do something as simple as make decisions on quorum.

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