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Lessons from the Pierce County, Wash., Heat Wave

State Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place, sponsored a grant program to reimburse local government for costs of responding to community needs during periods of extremely hot or cold weather.

Closeup of a smartphone screen showing a heat wave in the weather forecast.
(TNS) - Three years ago, nearly 30 people died in Pierce County as a result of a brutal summer heat event.

This year, the county is trying to ensure everyone stays safe, especially vulnerable populations like people living on the streets.

On May 22, John Holdsworth, program manager for Pierce County Emergency Management, gave a presentation to the Pierce County Council's Select Committee on Homelessness about the county's prior and future extreme-weather safety efforts.

"We've learned a number of lessons over the last few years, especially as these incidents have increased in frequency and increased in duration," Holdsworth told the committee. "One of the main lessons we learned is the increase in partnership in our [Emergency Operations Center]."

He said that some of the county's partnerships include the Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness, Pierce Transit and local utility companies.

Holdsworth said volunteers with the Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness helped distribute hypothermia kits to those living unhoused in different parts of the community during January's extreme cold weather. The county will also distrubute hyperthermia through volunteer this Summer.

The single use-kits were also given to first responders and have QR codes that help refer folks to temporary extreme weather shelters.

A partnership with Pierce Transit allows the Emergency Operations Center to have extreme weather shelters at Park & Ride lots. During extreme cold weather in January, Parkland Park & Ride and Bonney Lake Park & Ride both hosted temporary shelters.

Holdsworth said about 150 people were served by cold weather shelters this January.

Ahead of summer, Holdsworth shared the rubric used by Emergency Management to determine thresholds for when it needs to coordinate services during extreme heat and when air quality is poor due to wildfire smoke.

While the thresholds for air quality are directly related to specific Air Quality Index values, there are no specific thresholds for heat. Holdsworth said the heat thresholds are used contextually. He said the heat thresholds consider the time of the year that higher temperatures occur.

"A 90-degree day in May is going to have a different impact on people than a 90-degree day in August. It takes into account the daytime and overnight temperatures," Holdsworth told the committee. "So, a daytime high of 90-degrees that only cools down to 80-degrees has a more significant impact on people than dropping down to 60-degree where they are able to cool off."

He said once the thresholds are approached, the Emergency Operation Center begins to have coordination calls to plan services and resources regionally.

According to the rubric that was shared, those coordination efforts begin when the Air Quality Index is expected to be above 101 and the high temperatures are defined as "moderate", defined as affecting "individuals sensitive to heat, especially those without effective cooling and/or adequate hydration."

Holdsworth said the coordination efforts can be flexible, responding to where needs are most urgent. Partnerships with utilities providers can identify where power outages occur so that the temporary shelters can be installed in communities that might be without air-conditioning in hot-weather events and heating in cold-weather events.

Sally Perkins volunteers with the Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness to hand out water bottles and other resources to the unhoused during hot weather.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Perkins advocated for clearer heat thresholds to dictate when coordination is necessary. She said one part of the county could have higher temperatures than another, meaning that some could be in need of resources before the Emergency Operation Center has identified that the threshold has been met.

State Rep. Mari Leavitt (D- University Place), sponsored a grant program to reimburse local government for costs of responding to community needs during periods of extremely hot or cold weather, or in situations of severe poor air quality from wildfire smoke. The program takes effect on June 6, 2024.

Holdsworth said a similar program was used to help fund the county's January cold weather response, but only $25,000 was made available to the entire county across all of its agencies and municipalities.

"There is a new appropriation for this fiscal year, we are still looking at, and analyzing what the process, the plan, and the impacts are for that," Holdsworth told the committee.

©2024 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.