credit: Kim Ahlström / Flickr

The D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency declared the first heat emergency of 2017 on Tuesday, June 13, followed by two more later in the week. The heat index climbed as high as 97 degrees and stayed there for nearly 10 hours. During that time, the HSEMA 2017 Heat Emergency Plan was fully operational.

The plan is activated when the air temperature or heat index reaches 95 degrees. HSEMA uses a variety of strategies to communicate the plan with the public. Notifications from AlertDC reach more than 165,000 subscribers via email or text message. AlertDC notifications include the National Weather Service forecast and heat index temperature, information on heat safety, and information about the D.C. heat website and the hyperthermia hotline.

The heat-specific website heat.dc.gov contains a list and maps of cooling centers, shares information on heat related health issues, and promotes the hyperthermia hotline. HSEMA Twitter and Facebook pages are used to announce the activation of a heat emergency and promote the hyperthermia hotline. HSEMA and DHS coordinate a press release with the Mayor’s office to share alert activation and general public safety tips about heat, impacts to city services, cooling center information, the hyperthermia hotline number and heat.dc.gov.

The plan lists several suggestions for individuals to stay cool and safe, including government-designated cooling centers. The buildings that typically serve as cooling centers are libraries, government buildings, and community centers. These air-conditioned locations open to the public during extreme heat were far more prepared for the heat wave than they were last year. As reported previously by Street Sense, several of the cooling centers listed in the 2016 Heat Emergency Plan were unaware of what that responsibility entailed when called during a heat emergency last year.

Communication with the homeless community about heat response procedures often does not begin until an emergency has already been declared. At that time, four United Planning Organization vans canvas the streets to offer transportation to cooling centers.

Despite this improvement in service, many members of the homeless community are still unaware of the resources available to them. Employees of each of seven the cooling centers catering to people experiencing homelessness reported little to no usage. “That’s good to know,” Joe Malual said when told about the existence of cooling centers. “We need places to go when it gets hot.” Malual was waiting to access services at Miriam’s Kitchen in Foggy Bottom.

Awareness and access to cooling centers is vital. People experiencing homelessness are more vulnerable to heat-related physical illness than the general population due to increased time spent outside in urban areas. Furthermore, oppressive heat can exacerbate symptoms of mental illness and interact negatively with antipsychotic medications to accelerate the progression of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

The heat-trapping nature of concrete and asphalt-laden metropolitan areas, in combination with climate change, puts most major cities in the position of needing heat emergency plans.

For the most part, D.C. is in line with the national status quo for homeless outreach during a heat emergency. Local officials from Denver, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles reported outreach efforts almost identical to those here in the District, including cooling centers, and outreach teams which canvas the streets on hot days with water and sunscreen.

San Francisco lists an activation temperature for their Homeless Outreach Team that is five degrees cooler than the city-wide heat emergency threshold. When temperatures are low enough that a heat emergency is not declared by the city but high enough to be potentially dangerous, the HOT plan is activated and small teams of outreach workers check in on their clients more frequently, trying to keep them cool and comfortable with water and the option of transportation to cooling centers.

In addition to homeless outreach teams that are dispatched during heat emergencies, New York City uses an advance warning system to alert nearly 2000 organizations of emergencies that could interfere with the daily lives and independence of people with disabilities or access and functional needs. Participating agencies receive information designed for use by individuals with special needs.

The HSEMA Heat Emergency Plan lists homeless people as a “vulnerable population.” The plan provides resource but struggles to connect them to those in need. San Francisco and New York City’s heat responses do not rely on media consumption of vulnerable populations to communicate resources, nor do they wait for the declaration of an emergency to open channels of communication.