Surviving the heat: How Heat Alert and Response Systems help communities combat extreme heat

July 12, 2023


Heat waves mean high temperatures and humidity, and climate change can lead to longer and more intense heat events that can be dangerous for health, and even lead to death.

Heat Alert and Response Systems, commonly known as HARS, are implemented by communities and help them prepare for and respond to extreme heat. They include community mobilization and engagement, an alert protocol, a communications plan, a community response plan, and an evaluation plan.

“In short, HARS help communities and regions be ready for an extreme heat event and know what to do when they happen,” explains Rachel Siblock, a Policy Analyst in Health Canada’s Heat Division.

The first step is for communities is to determine the threshold to activate their heat response plans and activities. This usually aligns with the heat alerts and warnings put out by Environment and Climate Change Canada. Communities then determine what activities within their plans are triggered.

“A community’s HARS plans can include a range of activities to protect their citizens from extreme heat, such as handing out bottled water to residents, opening cooling centres, and having residents check-in on vulnerable people at home,” says Rachel. “Each community can decide what makes sense for them.”

There are different ways various communities implement HARS. For example, cooling centres or splash pads are usually easier to access in urban centres.

With older populations, posting physical materials like signs displaying ongoing heat warnings and posters with heat health information in common areas such as grocery stores or post offices is a better way to provide information, rather than social media posts. In rural areas, where the population may be more spread out, communities have focused on messages to ask people to check in on neighbours vulnerable to heat, actions that have been shown to be successful.

Although most HARS are developed and coordinated at a local level, Health Canada provides guidance and information to help local and regional health authorities develop evidence-based extreme heat plans and interventions. Rachel and her colleagues at Health Canada also play a connecting role, linking municipal and health officials with questions to experts in other parts of Canada who might have answers.

“Any heat response action that is implemented during a heat event has the potential to protect health, and increasing community leadership and support has been shown to work,” says Rachel. “When people understand how impactful heat can be, they are usually happy to be involved.”

The team is currently working on a pilot project with BC’s Interior Health Authority, to collaborate and co-develop HARS with Indigenous communities in the region, in order to adapt activities and plans to be culturally appropriate and safe.

Any communities who wish to develop their own HARS are welcome to contact the Heat Division, and join Health Canada’s Heat Community of Practice, a pan-Canadian network of people and organizations taking actions to protect Canadians from the health impacts of extreme heat.

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