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Feeling the heat: Heat waves and social vulnerability in Victoria

Feeling the heat: Heat waves and social vulnerability in Victoria

heatwave-webanner1Executive summary

Not all emergencies are dramatic events like bushfires and floods – they can also strike quietly, such as in the summer of 2009 when an estimated 374 Victorians died as a result of a heatwave. This was a greater toll than our worst bushfires and placed Victoria’s health and emergency services under intense strain.

Heatwaves cause more deaths in Australia each year than any other natural disaster, and have a greater negative impact on population health than any other natural hazard. Over recent years Australia has experienced unprecedented heatwaves, and the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is likely to increase as our climate changes.

Yet heatwaves are not included under Victoria’s emergency management provisions, even though the Department of Health recognises they require emergency responses. This means state and local governments, emergency services and local community organisations cannot effectively plan and respond, particularly when heatwaves often correspond with code red fire danger days.

The impact of heatwaves

Heatwaves affect people in a number of ways. The direct effects of extreme heat can cause heat stress, exacerbate the symptoms of existing or underlying illness and, in extreme cases, cause long-term impairment or death.

Heatwaves also affect infrastructure and services, which in turn can further affect health and wellbeing. This includes power failures, breakdowns in the public transport system, cessation of some support services and overstretching of health and emergency services.

A number of social, medical, economic and built environment factors place people at higher risk of adverse health and wellbeing outcomes during periods of extreme heat. Many of these risk factors are highly likely to co-occur. People who are older and/or suffer from chronic health issues are most at risk, especially if they are unable to keep cool and hydrated.

Also at greater risk are people who are homeless or live in poor quality housing, those who lack the capacity – for a range of social and personal reasons – to change their circumstances or behaviour in extreme heat events, and people who are socially isolated.

Addressing those impacts

I know of two community housing providers that made it their policy to go and knock on at least the older people’s doors at least once a week … when they got a call or heard that someone was worried about someone else, they would kind of draw straws over who would go and knock on the door. They were all afraid someone would be dead, because it was happening so regularly…
̶ Community Sector Organisation

Following the 2009 Victorian heatwave the Victorian Government undertook an extensive process of policy development and community engagement. This included the development of the Victorian Statewide Heatwave Plan, a heat alert system, work with the aged care and supported accommodation sectors and provision of funding to local governments to prepare heatwave plans, with assistance from the Heatwave Planning Guide.

Since 2010 there has been very limited further investment in preparing for heatwaves. There are also concerns that significant numbers of Victorians, many of them disadvantaged and socially isolated, continue to be at risk from extreme heat.

This Issues Paper examines heatwave research literature from Australia and internationally to identify and describe the risks to health and wellbeing from heatwaves. It also reports on the experiences of community sector organisations working with high-risk groups, the impact of the 2009 heatwave, and ongoing issues and challenges for vulnerable individuals and groups.

These organisations reported a range of alarming stories about how some Victorians face extreme heat, including:

  • Vulnerable people living in public housing properties, rooming houses and caravans that were described by staff as ‘hot boxes’ and who had no access to cooling or cool areas.
  • Lifts out of action in high rise accommodation because of heat-related power shortages.
  • Vulnerable people having to walk in extreme heat due to inadequate public transport and risking fines because they could not afford transport costs to medical or other appointments.
  • Landlords who did not allow air-conditioning or fans because of operating costs.
  • Lack of monitoring for vulnerable people, such as those with mental health or alcohol and drug issues who risk heat stress or sunburn and sunstroke by wearing inappropriate clothes or being out in the sun.
  • Lack of access to drinking water, particularly for people who are homeless and sleeping rough, as well as those living in accommodation that restricts access to kitchens and bathrooms.

VCOSS recommends the following actions:

  • Put heatwaves on the same emergency planning level as bushfires and floods by linking the Statewide Heatwave Plan to emergency management planning.
  • Ensure local and regional heatwave planning is adequately resourced and well coordinated to avoid duplication and ensure that people do not fall through the gaps.
  • Introduce legislated standards to improve the thermal efficiency of the homes of those Victorians who are most vulnerable in heatwaves, particularly those with disabilities, medical conditions and chronic illnesses.
  • Increase financial support such as Heat SAVVI (Supporting Accommodation for Vulnerable Victorians Initiative) to improve the quality, thermal efficiency and cooling of low cost housing options.
  • Ensure that publically accessible cool spaces are available in all communities and public housing estates, and that these locations are promoted to high risk groups.
  • Adequately resource local government and community sector organisations to include heatwave in risk management and business continuity strategies.
  • Engage high risk communities in developing heatwave strategies.
  • Develop, distribute and evaluate the effectiveness of targeted heatwave information about how to reduce heatwave risk for high risk groups.
  • Invest in strategies to connect high risk groups to health services and social opportunities.
  • Assist community sector organisations to ensure greater direct monitoring of at risk groups – especially people who are homeless, living in general public housing and in rooming houses.
    Provide targeted material assistance to at-risk groups including water, public transport tickets, sunscreen, ‘heatwave packs’ and, where appropriate, cooling appliances.