How to stay safe during a heat wave | Inquirer
 
 
 
 
 
 

As summer heats up, how can Californians stay safe?

As summer gets hotter, Californians are at higher risk of wildfires, extreme heat, power outages and water disasters
/ 07:00 AM July 10, 2024

heat wave

Photo from Ethnic Media Services

At a recent briefing conducted by state disaster readiness program Listos California, state emergency preparedness officials and frontline responders discussed the current forecast for extreme weather, and shared what Californians need to know to stay safe over the coming months.

The heat forecast

“We’re at the beginning stages of what looks to be a fairly long heat event across much of California,” said David Lawrence, meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We will see temperatures ramp up through the week, continuing into this coming weekend, and likely through at least the first half of next week, if not a little beyond” — seven to nine days, in all.

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Much of interior California will see afternoon daytime highs of 100 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit, while overnight temperatures won’t bring much relief, dipping only into the 70s and lower 80s.

Dr. Rita Nguyen, assistant health officer for the State of California and Director of Population Health, California Department of Public Health, shares the signs of heat-related illness.

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“Going forward statewide, there’s no strong signal to suggest that we may see persistently hot temperatures through these three months,” said Lawrence. “Rather, we’re likely to see up-and-down stretches of intense heat, followed by a bit of relief.”

“Both the length of this heat wave and the very warm overnight temperatures are most concerning” for health impacts, he added.

Preventing heat illness

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“People really underestimate how dangerous heat waves can be for Californians,” said Dr. Rita Nguyen, assistant health officer for California and director of population health for the California Department of Public Health. “Groups at higher risk of heat-related health impacts include those who are unhoused, working outdoors, working indoors without air conditioning, older adults, pregnant people, infants and children, people with disabilities and lower-income populations.”

“But anyone can be a victim of life-threatening heatstroke, because a lot of it doesn’t necessarily have to do with absolute temperature, if folks are not acclimated,” Nguyen explained. “Here in Contra Costa County, it’s 10 degrees hotter today than it was yesterday. When there’s sudden changes, the temperature doesn’t cool at night, all these things increase the risk of heat illnesses or other underlying conditions like heart attack or stroke.”

Dr. Rita Nguyen, assistant health officer for the State of California and Director of Population Health, California Department of Public Health, explains who is at risk for heat stroke and shares a lesser-known cause of heat-related illnesses.

“The good news is heat illnesses are preventable,” she continued. “Some of the warning signs include heavy sweating, muscle cramps, weakness, headache, nausea, vomiting, paleness, tiredness, irritability and dizziness. If people are getting confused, passing out or vomiting, seek medical attention right away.”

“Our three tips are: stay hydrated, stay cool, and stay informed,” said Nguyen, “Drink before you’re actually thirsty … to cool off your body as you sweat. Stay away from sugary, alcoholic or caffeinated drinks, which can dehydrate you. Stay cool and adjust your activities to air conditioned places when there’s a health alert … If you can’t find one, find your nearest cooling center, mall or library. Also, use cold showers, lightweight clothing and sunblock.”

“In this time of climate change, we’re getting more alerts and there may be alert fatigue. But when people stop paying attention, that’s when it gets dangerous,” she added.

Heat is the deadliest weather condition, “far more than wildfires and other disasters like floods,” added Amy Palmer, deputy director of crisis communications and public affairs at the state Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). “We will remain activated through the end of this weekend, monitoring events and responding to needs around the state.”

Californians can sign up for local emergency alerts at listoscalifornia.org/alerts.

As for employees, California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) regulations include heat illness prevention, said Charlene Gloriani, Cal/OSHA senior safety engineer.

Charlene Gloriani, Cal/OSHA program senior safety engineer Communications and Outreach at the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), details the rights California workers have under state law during high heat conditions, and the safety regulations required by state law to ensure workers don’t suffer heat-related illnesses.

Outdoor employees have a right to be trained on heat illness; to be watched for acclimatization during high heat for the first two weeks of a new job; to access clean drinking water at no cost; to access safe shade with temperatures beyond 80 degrees; to be monitored for signs of heat illness beyond 95 degrees; and to receive cooldown rest periods every two hours beyond 95 degrees.

On June 20, 2024, Cal/OSHA also approved regulations for heat illness prevention in indoor workplaces, said Gioriani“The Office of Administrative Law has 30 working days to review the proposal, and the regulation will take effect immediately after the approval … It’s very similar to the outdoor standard. Generally, it applies when indoor temperatures are above 82 degrees … and if it’s above 87 degrees, require employers to implement engineering controls.”

To file a workplace hazard complaint or get safety information from Cal/OSHA staff in English or Spanish, Californians can call 833-579-0927 between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Staying safe in water

Andrew Ramos, captain of the Sacramento Fire Department, said “I operate a 14-person CalOES swift water rescue team here in Sacramento … We conduct about 30 water-related rescues a year, which is a lot, and unfortunately, a majority of those involve deaths in drowning.”

Andrew Ramos, captain, City of Sacramento Fire Department, discusses the dangers of swimming in natural bodies of water, including lakes, rivers and other waterways, and emphasizes the need for extreme caution when doing so, even for those who are strong swimmers.

Due largely to melting snowcaps, “our waterways are colder, deeper and faster than normal right now,” he explained. “Although they may appear safe to wander into, use extreme caution. Make sure you’re wearing a Coast Guard-approved life vest and can swim. I was just speaking with another fire captain today, and he said in over 30 years, he’s never had to save a person wearing a life vest.”

Life vest loaner programs are available in counties statewide through the California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways.

“If you do fall in the water, don’t panic, breathe slowly and stay calm,” Ramos continued. “Kick off your shoes, try to keep your head above water, look out for debris and make your way to the sides of the stream … if someone near you falls in, please don’t dive in after them. Throw a flotation device towards them, have them grab it and call 911.”

Listos California

“These extreme weather conditions are a complex environment for Californians to adapt to,” said Sonya Harris, senior advisor for Listos California. In response, after the Camp Fire in 2019, Governor Newsom’s office created Listos, an education campaign and resource hub to help Californians prepare for disasters.

Sonya Harris, senior advisor, Listos California, says that in an emergency we may not have our cell phones or cell service and memorizing important phone numbers, including those of friends and family, can keep us safe and connected.

Harris said that Listos has been increasing outreach around wildfire smoke in the form of multilingual social media videos emphasizing tips including understanding and checking the local Air Quality Index (AQI); closing doors and staying inside when the AQI is high; signing up for local utility plan shut off alerts; and keeping batteries and phones powered in the event of an outage.

Since 2023, Listos California has called over three million Californians through a phone bank program, asking them to sign up for local emergency alerts, with one in four having signed up — “An incredible, incredible return, if we’re thinking about tangible, life-saving benefits,” she said.

“Really, all incidents are local,” Harris added. “What we’ve learned in our work is that Californians are ready to prepare and help their families stay safer.” (Ethnic Media Services)

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