Adapting to Extreme Heat – Perspectives from Rural Southwestern Ontario

Oxford County, a largely rural area in Southwestern Ontario, undertook a series of consultations and workshops to address the particular issues that it faces in an extreme heat event. While Oxford is by no means alone in working to prepare for the growing threat of extreme heat events, its status as a rural county contributes several unique challenges. Not only are rural regions more likely to have an older population than urban areas, but there is also likely a greater proportion of people working in physically strenuous outdoors occupations (e.g. farmers, foresters, fishers, and other labourers doing outdoor work). Additionally, such areas also struggle with limited resources and expertise, proximity and access to health services, a smaller number of community support organizations and facilities, limited media for communicating in real time with local populations during an event and, finally, a greater likelihood of people being isolated or without public transportation compared with those living in urban settings. To further complicate matters, Oxford county is among the warmest regions in Canada and, due to climate change, is expected to experience a doubling of days over 30°C by mid-century. These consultation and workshop exercises have proven effective in increasing the efficacy of the Heat Alert and Response System for the region.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Historical climate records indicate that Oxford County, Ontario, is one of the hottest regions Canada, having experienced some of the highest recorded temperatures and humidex values in the country. Furthermore, climate predictions indicate that this region see a doubling of days over 30°C by the middle of the century. These heat hazards are only exacerbated by a number of issues that are distinct to Oxford as a largely rural area. With an older population, many people working in high-risk occupations relying on manual labour conducted outdoors, poor access to transit and other public services, and a constant struggle to find enough resources for existing medical support facilities, Oxford County is at a higher risk to the threats of extreme heat than other regions of Canada.

Identifying Actions

Oxford County is not alone in developing a Heat Alert and Response System. Oxford County Public Health and Emergency Service was able to leverage contacts neighbouring public health units and participated in multi-stakeholder workshops across the province to incorporate ideas and lessons learned on key issues such as effective heat-health risk communication, interactions between medications and heat and methods for assessing community-level vulnerabilities. Gathering this information was a long process, but a significant contributor to the development of Oxford’s Heat Alert and Response System was a tabletop exercise held in conjunction with the County’s annual emergency preparedness, response education, and training event.


The all-day workshop event began with a series of background presentations on the impacts of heat on vulnerable populations, regional climatology, interactions between heat and medications, and local services for a response. Participants then worked through a series of worsening heat scenarios within a controlled situational environment to test a planned heat alert activation and response before shifting to community recovery. Participants were asked to consider roles and responsibilities within their organization, existing procedures, as well as possible actions and decision-making. The scenarios developed emphasized exploration of community response capacity related to different possible situations, such as well-water contamination, power outages, community isolation and disposal of dead livestock.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

Close to 100 participants attended the tabletop exercise and it was one of the largest exercises of that nature facilitated by Oxford County. Four key themes emerged from the exercise:

  • Communication between affected agencies, the general public and the emergency operations centre is essential. The exercise provided the first opportunity for these units to come together to discuss response communication (e.g. who is responsible for issuing a heat alert, who declares an emergency and informs the public in a timely manner?).
  • Many agencies that participated in the exercise identified the importance of reviewing their current policies (if they exist) on extreme heat.
  • Informing the public is a delicate balance between being proactive and desensitizing the population, especially those most vulnerable to heat.
  • There are resource challenges for rural emergency management operations. Resource demands were frequently mentioned by participants throughout the exercise.


Link to Full Case Study

Using climate change projections enables better adaptation decisions, as it allows you to better understand how the climate may change. To learn how to choose, access, and understand climate data, visit’s Learning Zone.
To further understand how climate information can be applied in health-related work explore the Health Module on