York MES student coordinates first heat registry program

The heat kills more people each year in North America than freezing temperatures, tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms and lightening. In Toronto, there are about 120 deaths annually from extreme heat as compared to 105 deaths from extreme cold.

That’s a fact York MES student Tanya Gulliver is willing to bet most people don’t know. “Heat kills more than all other weather-related conditions combined,” said Gulliver. With impending climate change, scientists are predicting hotter summers, and that could mean an increase in the number of heat-related deaths unless something is done.

Right: Peer outreach workers for the West End Heat Registry team Paul (back left), Andrew (also PARC drop-in relief staff), Tanya Gulliver, Kathy, Laura (front left) and Debbie

Gulliver is doing her part in trying to save lives as the coordinator of North America’s first heat registry program – the West End Heat Registry, run out of the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC) in Toronto. A pilot project, the registry received a $15,000 grant from the city to develop and run the program and a $6,000 York research impact Knowledge Mobilization scholarship, which pays for Gulliver’s time for the summer.

“We actually couldn’t have done what we’re doing without the York Knowledge Mobilization money,” says Gulliver.

The impetus for the program was the 2005 heat-related death of PARC member Richard Howell, after being sent home from the hospital to his third-floor rooming house without air conditioning during one of the city’s hot spells. In 2006, the city gave a small amount of money to PARC toward an outreach program, but nothing for the summer of 2007.

So Gulliver did her research and made a deputation to the Toronto Board of Health recommending, among other things, that a heat registry be set up in the city’s west end. Toronto city councillor for Ward 14 Parkdale-High Park Gord Perks, brought the recommendations to council and a grant followed in the fall of 2007.

Left: From left, Rose and Jack, peer outreach workers for the West End Heat Registry

Gulliver says she thought they could look to the US – Philadelphia or Chicago, where some 700 people died during the 1995 heat wave – for a heat registry model. What Gulliver wanted to know was the political, economic, health, and social factors that contributed to the deaths, but there was no heat registry system in place. “No one else was doing this. This is a unique project at least in North America. So we had to start from scratch and build it.”

Eight peer outreach workers, familiar with the community and its people, have been instrumental in the early success of the heat registry program. They are the ones administering a questionnaire to residents in the community designed to identify those at-risk. The questionnaire looks at the person’s living environment, social environment, physical health – whether they have breathing problems, heart issues or diabetes – and their mobility. “Social isolation is the number one risk factor,” said Gulliver. “We also ask about emotional health because at PARC most of our members have suffered with mental health issues.”

The outreach workers follow up with those on the registry – about 90 people so far – on heat alert days. If the workers don’t see the residents in the PARC’s drop-in centre, at the library or area coffee shops, they’ll call them or drop by their homes to ensure they’re all right. “We probably have about 80 per cent of them coming into the drop-in centre on heat alert days,” said Gulliver. She credits that to the good work of the outreach workers who have managed to get the word out about the dangers of heat.

Right: West End Heat Registry peer outreach workers Rose and Jack show off their heat busters T-shirts

“You’re helping people at the grassroots level," said Jack MacDonald, one of the outreach workers. "As a peer, they’re connecting with me and I try and make their day a little more comfortable.”

Part of the problem, said MacDonald, is that people are afraid their landlords will raise their rent if they get an air conditioner. Still, he was surprised at the amount of at-risk people in the Parkdale community. “I didn’t realize there were so many people in the west end that needed to be checked. It’s tough, especially for people with breathing problems. They really do appreciate that someone is out there and cares.”

Gulliver agrees saying the response to the heat registry has been really positive. She hopes the city will fund the model for other high-risk areas of Toronto and that cities across North America will adapt it to their needs. Thanks to the work of the West End Heat Registry, Toronto has agreed to supply about 50 people with disabilities with air conditioners this summer.

There is no heat limit in Ontario, said Gulliver. Landlords are not responsible for keeping the temperature below a certain level. “The milk act in Ontario regulates the temperature of milk from cow to consumer…but there is nothing for people.”

To watch a short video clip created by the Star, click here.