Summer time and heatwave management shows some cracks

January 8, 2017 at 9:05 pm 1 comment

SE Australian Heatwave

SE Australian Heatwave

Melbourne sweltered through another heatwave, the first of 2017. Hope everyone survived the heat.

Temperature at Melbourne (Olympic Park) hit 36.1C at 3.30pm on Saturday. Of far greater concern, the overnight minimum temperature hovered at around 30C dipping down to 28.4C at 1.30am as the low point before rising to 30C at 9am Sunday. By early afternoon a cool change had moved through dropping temperatures to the mid 20s.

High night time temperatures disturb sleep and reduce physiological recovery for the next day. Night time is also when the Urban Heat Island effect is most pronounced as there is less atmospheric mixing, and zero vegetation transpiration to cool things down, unless there are stronger winds. The Bureau of Meteorology labelled the night as ‘oppressive’ citing both the higher than normal minimum temperature and higher humidity.

According to the Age report, there were 30 heat-related calls for Paramedics across Victoria on Saturday and another 15 on Sunday. At least six cases on Saturday related to children locked in cars, and one call for a child in a car on Sunday.

Average temperatures for Australia since 1910 have risen by one degree, but this doesn’t tell the full story. Summer minimum temperatures for Melbourne have risen a full two degrees over the last century. The trend is clear. We are going to see more hot nights like on Saturday driven by climate change.

Heatwaves and extreme heat days are a real silent killer. (See Climate Council 2016) Heat stress associated with extreme heat events kills more people than any other natural disaster. (See Coates, L. et al 2014) Yet it doesn’t garner the media attention or have the emotional impact such as a bushfire, flood or storm. People die in their homes for lack of air-conditioning, or perhaps venture out for shopping underestimating the heat. Elderly, children, people with heart conditions, mental conditions, from non-English speaking backgrounds, or on certain medication all have higher risk profiles for heat stress. It is when ambulance callouts and statistics from hospitals are compiled weeks or months later that we see the true mortality picture emerge.

Our member Andrea Bunting had a letter published in the Age last week highlighting the effort to reduce road trauma and deaths. We have managed to reduce the death toll, although we have had to accept restrictions such as mandatory seat belts, alcohol limits for drivers, reduced speed zones and extra policing. We need to put in a similar effort for the silent killer of extreme heat, slashing our emissions in multiple regulatory programs and making homes more climate resilient to face the weather challenges of this century.

Latest research says even pregnant mums in the first 8 weeks of pregnancy need to be careful about staying relatively cool, that hot days during early pregnancy is a potential risk factor for congenital heart defects. You can read a report of the study in Environmental Health Perpectives.

Extreme heat days even affect human fertility. Is it ever too hot for sex? Fertility statistics from one study say there is a clear trend. See November 2015: Too Darn Hot! Sex, human fertility and birth rate declines due to #heatwave temperature shocks.

So we need to take the increasing frequency, length, intensity and earlier start and later finish of extreme heat events very seriously.

A report by the Victorian Auditor General’s Office in 2014 highlighted numerous issues with emergency management of heatwaves in Victoria. (See our coverage here)

Last year it was gratifying to see Paul Holman from Ambulance Victoria, along with Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley, elevating the heat health risk to respect the heat to the same level as the bushfire risk. We reported on this here. But this needed to happen.

Heat Health communication Problems

This most recent heatwave highlighted there may still be problems to sort out in addressing emergency management of heatwaves.

While heat health alerts were issued for multiple regions by the Victorian Department of Health for Saturday, on the Victorian Emergency website map there was no indication that ANY Heat health alert had been issued. This is just not satisfactory. It means heat stress and heat health is not being prioritised by Emergency Services, despite the evidence that it is a major cause of morbidity and mortality.

The @VicGovDHHS twitter account did not tweet any heat health alert message for this January heatwave. The last Heat Health alert was on 23 December for the Christmas Day heat health alert. Maybe the person in DHHS who looks after Heat Health Alerts on social media went on holidays. Simply not good enough.

I did receive a response from Emergency Victoria, but all the information on the website under the Prepare and Get Ready Tab was a link you needed to scroll down the page to for the Chief Medical Officer’s Heat Health alert status website.

I am sorry. In this day and age of mashable presentations such as the main Incidents and Warnings map, heat health alerts need to be communicated to the general public somehow via this map. Most members of the public won’t drill down through at least two clicks (one of which is to a different website) AND scrolling down pages just to find out if a Heat Alert has been issued for their region. To draw an analogy from the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: It’s like putting the plans for the demolition of Arthur Dent’s house in the basement of the Town Hall with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.

Emergency Services need to get their act together on this.

I found out about the 3pm Emergency Services media conference on Saturday with Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley, Paul Holman from Ambulance Victoria, along with others, via my twitter stream. But by then the media conference was over. The link @Vicemergency used on twitter only worked during the livestream I presume, with no information on accessing an archived version.

Emergency Victoria need to improve their social media skills to enable users to watch both live and later on social media platforms that they use. Links are fine, as long as they work.

I complained via twitter and @VicEmergency, to their credit did respond quickly, saying it was available on their Facebook page. But the link they then provided was not directly to the post but to the Facebook site which, by then (a few hours after the event), had a heap of posts which I had to scroll down through. It’s as if they wanted to bury it alive.

It was great to see the multiple threats covered in some detail: heat health, fire risk, water safety, increased sightings of sharks for beach safety. This is a real improvement on just a few years ago when predominantly only the bushfire risk was considered and communicated.

Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said “Victorians need to ensure they take care of themselves in this hot weather, checking on loved ones, friends and neighbours to ensure they are coping.”

State Health Commander Paul Holman urged people to keep drinking water and stay hydrated, reduce their alcohol intake and take extra care exercising in the heat. “It’s going to remain hot overnight, so make sure you stay hydrated and remember to never leave a child or pet in a car.”

Here is the Emergency Services press conference:

While there has been an improvement in recent years, it is clear there are still problems in the management and communication of heatwave emergencies in Victoria.

You can read my full Storify of Oppressive night heat hits Melbourne in first 2017 heatwave



Read More:

References:

  • Coates, L., Katharine Haynesa, James O’Briena, John McAneneya, Felipe Dimer de Oliveiraa, (2014) Exploring 167 years of vulnerability: An examination of extreme heat events in Australia 1844–2010. Environmental Science and Policy. Volume 42, October 2014, Pages 33–44 (Full Paper)
  • Loughnan, M.E., Tapper, NJ, Phan, T, Lynch, K, McInnes, JA (2013), A spatial vulnerability analysis of urban populations during extreme heat events in Australian capital cities, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, 128 pp. (Full Paper)
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