Leveraging the Networks of Various Partners to Ensure Residents’ Safety

Beginning in 2005, the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) adopted an Extreme Temperature Alert Protocol and utilized the extensive networks of partnering organizations to maximize the reach of the protocol. The Extreme Temperature Alert Protocol is a system of alert citizens of the potential dangers posed by extended periods of high heat and informing of the various ways to keep safe during such an event. It is often the case that members of the most vulnerable groups, including the elderly, the homeless, those struggling with addiction and chronic illnesses are also the citizen who are the most difficult to reach by the usual means of communication for a local or regional government. By proactively seeking partnerships with organizations that have a greater degree of penetration into such groups, for example the Salvation Army, the MLHU has effectively expanded the reach and efficacy of its communication network. This has resulted in a greater degree of community resilience to extreme heat events throughout the area.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Many health units and municipalities across Canada have recently implemented, or are in the process of implementing, some form of heat alert protocol. The basic premise of such strategies is to make citizens aware of the dangers posed by extreme heat events and the means by which they can better protect themselves and loved ones from such dangers. These protocols are often complemented by local response plans to provide cooling shelters and other forms of support. However, one of the more difficult aspects of this work is the task of effectively disseminating this information. In particular, disseminating this information to the people who most need to be aware of it because they are among the most vulnerable. Such groups include the elderly, the homeless, and those struggling with addiction or chronic illnesses, among others. Members of these groups are more likely than the general public to lack access to tradition means of government communication, making reaching them a difficult task. Due to the effects of climate change, the issue of heat waves will only become more pressing as time goes on.

Identifying Actions

The current model at the MLHU has its roots based in the 2005 heat wave that afflicted the nearby city of Toronto. This heatwave resulted in the release of 18 separate heat alerts and prompted the Government of Ontario to request that regional health units and municipalities across the province work towards establishing response plans for extremely hot days. The MLHU released its own Extreme Temperature Alert Protocol not long after. One of the particularities of the MLHU is that it incorporates both densely-populated urban areas and sparsely-populated rural areas in its coverage area. This fact has necessitated the creation of very different strategies of communication and implementation based on the area under consideration. For example, the City of London had a population of some 383,822, according to the 2016 census, and is able to leverage substantial resources to help combat extreme heat. In previous events, the city utilized community centres, swimming pools and splash pads, and libraries as publicly-available cooling centres that can be well-distributed about the city. Furthermore, it could utilize connections with not-for-profit organizations like the Salvation Army/Men’s Mission to increase shelter capacities for homeless people and other vulnerable groups. In smaller and more rural parts of the county, the MLHU relies on the assistance of its community partners to ensure heat warnings are properly communicated. For instance, it works closely with local day cares, seniors facilities, schools, local churches, various religious groups, and community health clinics that act as a point of relay for the information coming from the MLHU. These groups also play an important role in communicating with the individual residents and making sure they are taken care of.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The MLHU has reported that embracing local organizations to help disseminate heat alert information has proven to be a very successful model. It has also noted that informal arrangements between neighbours in rural parts of the county tend to happen frequently because of existing networks. These groups can also help to organize coordinated responses outside the purview of the plan, for example, it was observed that informal networks organized carpooling during a heat event in order to ensure that people who lacked vehicles were still able to make it to the cooling stations as necessary.

Next Steps

The MLHU is currently reviewing how it could make some of their partnerships with local groups more formal to ensure an even stronger communication with rural areas during heat alerts. The MLHU is also currently working on the development of a survey that will be shared with every partner involved in responding during heat waves to gather their impressions and comments on the operations following an extreme heat event. Another next step involves revising the MLHU’s Extreme Temperature Protocol to ensure that it is relevant, effective and useful in addressing the needs of the local community, particularly the folks who are most vulnerable. The intention is to further this work with the help of an MPH student throughout the upcoming summer (2021).


Link to Full Case Study

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