What’s changed in B.C.’s emergency response one year after the heat dome?

Nearly 12 months after hundreds of people died in soaring temperatures, many of them seniors and many of them dying alone, we learned public agencies dropped the ball when it came to warning people of the dangers.

The coroner’s report into last summer’s heat dome found “there was a lag between the heat alerts issued by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and public agencies and the public response” and the devastating consequence to that lack of urgent response has left a mark on the people of this province who experienced historic temperatures.

The heat dome also exposed major gaps in the provincial emergency system that potentially played a part in those deaths.


Across the board, changes have been made to numerous systems, but reviews and improvements are still underway.

Kaila Butler with E-Comm, the province’s 911 call service says staff continue to look at how to make things more efficient but warns there’s a very decent chance they will be overwhelmed again this summer, which is concerning if there is another emergency.

“We are anticipating it to be a lot busier in the summer, that may continue through the fall, but we do have regular data scientists and our workforce management team who are evaluating all of these different denominators, in terms of what volumes could look like. At this point we know for certain, that the summer months will be a challenging time for us with regards to wait times on our non-emergency and we do anticipate, perhaps even as long as 120 minutes to reach a call-taker on non-emergency.”

She says since January, E-Comm has hired 50 people and more recruitment is underway to ensure there is enough staff to handle anything that happens now and moving forward.

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“In preparation for the summer this year, any possible weather events in terms of heat, fires and potentially flooding, there’s definitely an increase to our staff base. We’re also looking at and continue to look at, with our partners, various call-efficiency process changes, increasing the availability of online crime reporting, particularly for non-emergency calls, where maybe police are not required to attend but a crime report is still required. [Also] promotion of those tools to ensure that British Columbians are aware that they’re available and ready for them to use as well.”

Butler says some of the so-called efficiencies made to the system happened in December 2021 and she says they’ve been working. During the heat dome, 92 per cent of 911 calls were being answered in five seconds or less, the standard is 95 per cent of calls should be answered in that timeframe, now she says they’re answering 97 per cent of calls in five seconds or less.

“A call-transfer process change was implemented between E-Comm, who of course answers that front-end portion of 911 calls, and the transfer over to the ambulance service. So, previous to that change and throughout the heatwave last year, what was happening was 911 callers who needed the ambulance service were hitting that 911 queue and there was a little bit of a transfer delay based on the increase in demand.”

Getting calls in a timely fashion to paramedics was a key breakdown during the heat dome. A lack of staff, who were overwhelmed and overworked, strained the response to those who needed it most.

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A year later, and Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Dispatchers of BC, says they still don’t have enough. As of this article being published, Clifford says they have at least 500 job openings across the province and recruitment is also a focal point. “Unfortunately, our staffing situation is not better today than it was a year ago, despite a lot of efforts and that’s the challenges we’re having with getting more paramedics.”

He adds no one could have prepared them for what the heat dome did to this province, and he feels the infrastructure of the organization is better today but, again, there is still a lot of work to do

“We need to be better prepared. I believe the systems are in place to get us on the right track and we’re on the right track, but the problem is staffing. We’re in an incredible recruitment drive. It’s going to take money to pay the paramedics, to break that margin between us and other public sectors,” Clifford said.

“It’s going to take money and retention, the investment the [provincial] government put in, in the last two years has been incredible but it’s highlighted how far behind we got,” Clifford said.

Clifford says increased staffing is one part of the problem, but he feels increased communication with other agencies is also vital.

“BCEHS has put in a perspective within the organization a new structure that reinstates the emergency preparedness division within the ambulance service and it would integrate with natural disasters, big events, and that sort of stuff. The [emergency operation centres], public service announcements, making sure we’re prepared from a coordination with other agencies, all that sort of stuff. So generally, the emergency preparedness and coordination and response capacity within the organization structure is better and now in place.”

First responders aren’t the only ones who’ve had to make changes, municipalities also have a responsibility to make sure people are safe and have access to certain supports.

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Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley, who was a firefighter for three decades, says after holding forums with the public, they now have four cooling centres open until 10 p.m., instead of two that closed at 7 p.m., like last year.

He says city staff are also in talks with building managers to make sure people have a cool, safe place to go, for the next heat event.

“Our emergency planning staff are contacting as many buildings as they can to ensure there’s going to be some way to help people out in those times. We know the three-storey walk-ups, the older buildings, are the ones that get really hot, so we’ll be paying special attention to those. We’re working with the landlords and the developers to hopefully ensure they have an area where people know they can go within their building,”  said Hurley.

Hurley hopes the changes the city makes are not only put in place immediately but last well into the future.

“We’re going to continue to learn as we move forward so it will always be an ever-changing goal because we know every time something happens, we learn something new, we learn we could have done something better. So, we’re always reviewing these situations to ensure we’re improving all the time and that will continue,” Hurley said.

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Hurley, who admits he’s worried about the future, especially in our battle against climate change, says the heat dome was an eye-opener that highlighted how unprepared every agency truly was.

By Dec. 1, 2022, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, in consultation with vulnerable populations, will do a review into issuing cooling devices as medical equipment to persons most at risk of dying during an extreme heat event, and they are set to make public the findings of their review.

The coroner’s report says by June 30, 2022, the Health Ministry will move forward with a BC Heat Alert and Response System to local governments for “review and adoption of recommended actions as appropriate based on community needs and identified vulnerabilities, including actions specific to vulnerable populations (ie. wellness checks, cooling centres [including mobile cooling centres], water distribution, greening areas, cooling parks).”

Check back on Wednesday for the final part of our special series on the heat dome as we look at what B.C.’s future looks like when it comes to extreme weather events. Read part 1 here

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