Since they were implemented in the 1980s, Heat Alert and Response Systems have contributed to the reduction of illness and fatalities from heat events in Canadian and American communities. Public health officials with Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living (MHSAL) and City of Winnipeg officials recognized the growing risks to health associated with extreme heat events. In recent decades, severe heat waves in Europe and the United States killed thousands of people. The changing climate in Canada meant more extreme heat events were expected to occur in the future, prompting health officials with the MHSAL Office of Disaster Management to increase preparedness of individuals in the City of Winnipeg and the province more broadly. The first step of developing an adequate response system to extreme heat events was to assess the vulnerabilities of the population. MHSAL and the City of Winnipeg partnered with Health Canada to conduct a Winnipeg-based heat-health vulnerability assessment. This assessment evaluated the public’s baseline exposure and sensitivity to heat, and the ability to adapt to extreme heat events. The findings of the study revealed that Winnipeg’s population was vulnerable to increasing extreme heat events, with certain groups facing higher risks due to age, illness, socio-economic conditions, and occupation. The comprehensive assessment also identified opportunities to take actions that would protect health while adapting to the changing climate. Recognizing that this was an issue for Winnipeg and understanding which populations were most vulnerable to extreme heat allowed the City of Winnipeg to develop specific objectives for a Heat Alert and Response System.
The Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living’s (MHSAL) Office of Disaster Management established a Heat Alert and Response System Advisory Committee in 2009 to guide the development of a new Heat Alert and Response System that would improve Winnipeg’s preparedness to deal with increasingly dangerous extreme heat events. MHSAL initially collaborated with the City of Winnipeg and Health Canada to conduct city-wide heat-health vulnerability assessments. The assessments revealed that the general population in Winnipeg was vulnerable to extreme heat, especially as climate change continues to bring warmer summers. A Heat Science Group was created to develop a four-level heat alert protocol in Winnipeg. The group engaged with stakeholders from various backgrounds to develop appropriate response actions for each level that would protect the vulnerable groups identified in the initial heat-health vulnerability assessment. These measures were developed based on four factors: the nature of both the risk and vulnerability, capacity to engage the community, availability of resources, and the efficacy of the measures available. As part of the implemented Heat Alert and Response System, several communication techniques such as website, tweets, and other bulletins notify people in Winnipeg of heat events when they occur. Protective actions are included in these communications, as well as signs and symptoms of heat illness and where people can go to get more information. The City of Winnipeg’s Emergency Preparedness and Coordination Committee works to meet the emerging needs of citizens during extreme heat. The city may, for example, extend pool hours, arrange cooling areas, or extend the hours of air-conditioned municipal services to protect vulnerable populations during events of extreme heat. Officials in MHSAL have been dedicated to employing a continuous quality improvement approach to the Heat Alert and Response System, using ongoing input from stakeholders to make improvements to the response protocols.