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Chief Heat Officers Get into the Gov Tech Trenches

As climate change produces heat waves and other problems, a handful of cities have hired chief heat officers to help residents cool off. What’s driving this trend and how much say will the CHO have over technology?

For a look at the data on who is most at risk for extreme heat and other hazards, see this companion article.

If all goes well, David Hondula’s new job — one of the rarest and newest types of jobs in local government, but potentially among the most influential in the years to come when it comes to technology, data and emergency response — will help residents keep cool and survive as the planet continues to bake.

Hondula in September took over as head of Phoenix’s new Office of Heat Response and Mitigation.

An environmental sciences professor at Arizona State University, he works as one of a handful of “chief heat officers” in the U.S., a position that is less about easing the long-term causes of climate change than dealing with its impacts now.

In fact, as a Government Technology data analysis shows, almost half of the country's population was under extreme heat advisories, watches and warnings on July 20, with the Northeast and Midwest facing the most risk from heat waves. That is part of the wider context of the job entrusted to Hondula and other chief heat officers.

His responsibilities — still under construction as the parameters of the job emerge — include helping to make sure Phoenix has enough trees, cooling centers and shaded bus shelters; exploring the uses of cooling towels and garments for the homeless; and creating public-facing dashboards that help citizens and officials better understand the dangers and responses to heat.

He aims to work with public works professionals on possible deployments of street-cooling pavement, and with data and computer experts to better map and analyze heat risks that apply to zoning and other issues. Even “smart home” and “smart city” technology could play roles in reducing heat deaths.

“I’m learning how intersectional heat is, with so many departments and sectors of society,” Hondula told Government Technology when asked about some of the lessons learned so far.


Chief heat officers — Hondula’s peers in Los Angeles and Miami hold that title — make up a tiny global club that seems likely to expand, especially if Hondula and others prove effective.

At least seven cities around the globe, including Athens, Greece, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, employ chief heat officers, according to Kurt Shickman, director of extreme heat initiatives at the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which focuses on climate change.

California is considering appointing a state-level chief heat officer while officials in other major U.S. cities are increasingly taking on more heat-related duties.

“We are continuing to see local advocacy efforts in multiple cities for the city governments to hire chief heat officers,” he told Government Technology. “One of the challenges of protecting people from heat is that the responsibility for heat-related issues is spread across many agencies and people.”

Shickman traces the job origin of chief heat officer to a partnership between Miami-Dade County, Fla., the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, and the Miami Foundation.

That effort led to the April 2021 hiring of Jane Gilbert, previously the chief resilience officer for the city of Miami, as the first chief heat officer for Miami-Dade County.

Larger cities with bigger budgets are better positioned to hire chief heat officers. Even so, what those cities need from such a position will vary on that city’s specific conditions. One thing is pretty certain, though: Chief heat officers will have a growing say on how public agencies analyze, buy and deploy technology.

“We see CHOs playing a role in all aspects of heat resilience assessment, planning and implementation — and technology and analytical tools are going to be a key part of all three,” Shickman said.


The technology in question could run from the relatively mundane to the seemingly futuristic, according to backers of hiring chief heat officers. That includes Los Angeles Councilmember Paul Krekorian, an early supporter of hiring Marta Segura as that city’s CHO.

“We expect the chief heat officer to work with all relevant agencies to identify and implement cooler, energy-efficient building and maintenance practices, incorporate heat resilience into our city's transportation and power systems,” he told Government Technology in an email interview. “The chief heat officer will also be involved in increasing our use of shade structures, enlarging our tree canopy and applying cool street surfaces to the streets of our urban heat islands.”

Even in major cities without a dedicated chief heat officer, officials — whether new hires or existing employees — are taking on more responsibilities that are directly related to heat. Salt Lake City stands as one example.

There, Sophia Nicholas, deputy director of the sustainability department, was this August dealing with such heat-related issues as drought and poor air quality as she considered the emergence of chief heat officers in other U.S. cities.

While her professional focus is on medium- and longer-term issues, it is becoming impossible to ignore the shorter-term civic punishments of excessive heat.

“We have this prolonged drought that is getting worse, and (smoky) air from wildfires, and winters are getting warmer,” she said. “I think that makes it much more real for folks.”

She said the hiring of specific chief heat officers is a “great direction, a very important investment, especially in these larger communities. Heat is probably the element of climate change that joins us all together in the immediate term.”

Back in Phoenix, Hondula — already the subject of in-depth global media attention — knows he is pushing the frontier, so to speak, when it comes to climate change responses and using technology to ease the suffering brought about by resulting heat waves. He’s been on the job less than a year but already sees that local governments can’t just ignore the heat, no matter their size and budgets and technology plans.

“I wonder how much untapped potential there is in cities for heat management,” he said.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.