British Columbia’s chief ambulance officer has ordered BC Emergency Health Services to its top alert level with hot weather on the way.

Leanne Heppell described summer as the busiest time of year for the ambulance service, with school out and many events underway, and while extreme temperatures aren’t expected this weekend, she wants 911 dispatchers and paramedics poised to respond. 

“We normally watch our call volumes every hour, but this gives us an opportunity to escalate if we need to bring in more staff, we need to reprioritize our activity,” she said in an interview with CTV News. “It just gives us a more structured approach to addressing call volume, particularly if that call volume increases dramatically.” 

Last year, the then-leader of EHS couldn’t explain why she didn’t escalate the internal response in advance of the heat dome and didn’t order the top alert level until after days after mass casualties had been recorded.

“A lot of changes have taken place since last summer," insisted Heppell. "We put a lot of new processes in. We took action right away and we are prioritizing the sickest patients first, so if you dial 911 you'll have an ambulance get you to where you need to go.”

CITIES MAKE SOME CHANGES

On Thursday morning, the City of Vancouver held a technical briefing to explain what it would be doing differently for heat events. Several municipalities sent news releases encouraging people to hydrate and watch for signs of heat-related illness, while outlining the locations of cooling centres, but the strategy was largely communication-oriented. 

Aside from adopting an extreme heat response and warning system developed by health authorities, provincial officials and Environment and Climate Change Canada, Vancouver's improvements largely amounted to a 30-per-cent increase in the number of cooling centres, the introduction of overnight cooling accommodations in the event of an extreme emergency, and coordination with community groups. 

A Vancouver Coastal Health medical health officer acknowledged that – particularly in the wake of criticism of last year’s poor communication about the lethal risks of the heat dome – improving that was a priority. 

"That clarity, that consistency and again a really clear underlining of urgency of action and extreme heat emergency level are major enhancements,” said Dr. Michael Schwandt.

One of his counterparts in Fraser Health pointed out there have been many discussions and plans put in place since last year, with particular concern for seniors living alone and “urban heat islands” where there’s little greenery and temperatures can soar.

“There are a lot of neighbourhoods in Fraser Health where there are high levels of vulnerability,” acknowledged medical health officer, Dr. Emily Newhouse.

“We're going to be pulling out all the stops if we have an extreme heat emergency this summer, and we also know we need a lot of co-operation from our partners, both the public and local governments.”

KEY GAP IN PLANNING?

The B.C. Coroner’s report in to the heat dome deaths found nearly all the people who died in the extreme heat had been indoors, but when CTV News asked the City of Vancouver whether there is a system to get isolated seniors transportation to cooling centres if they need non-emergency help, there wasn’t a clear answer. 

Surrey’s fire chief, who’s also the city’s emergency planning coordinator, said while they’ve done extensive planning and intend to be more proactive instead of reactionary in the event of extreme heat, there is no official way of getting an overheated person with mobility or transportation challenges to a cooling centre. 

“It's a pilot this year and this came about in the last three or four weeks, so I think those are good ideas,” said Larry Thomas. “They're not embedded this time around, so if someone really needs transport I know my (Surrey Fire Rescue) staff will make sure that person finds a way to get to a cool place by whatever the means is."