Making a community heat ready: ASU researchers head to Yuma to educate and survey community

As the summer temperatures continue to heat up, the most vulnerable citizens in our communities are at risk of succumbing to the ill effects of heat exposure. As part of ongoing efforts to help address this, researchers with Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning are working with local organizations and governments to learn more about how people are impacted by heat and how to limit the negative and potentially deadly experiences.

Recently, through a project funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and administered through the Arizona Department of Health Services, members from the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning headed to Yuma to assist the Yuma County Public Health Services District. According the Arizona Department of Health Services, the purpose of the project is to both evaluate current public health interventions as well as to identify strategies that would work best with vulnerable populations, with the overall goal of reducing illness and deaths from extreme-weather hazards.

Yuma County was one of three counties selected by the Arizona Department of Health Services to participate in the Climate and Health Adaptation Monitoring Program grant. This grant enables communities to implement various adaptation projects aimed at reducing the health impact of climate events.

“Yuma County chose to focus its adaptation efforts on extreme heat,” explained Hana Putnam, one of the coordinators of the effort and a research technician with the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “The strategies they are planning center around raising awareness and capacity of their cooling centers, which are places where people can go to cool down in air conditioning and rehydrate free of charge.”

Homeless populations are among the most vulnerable to adverse health effects due to their often-prolonged exposure to the sun and heat. Sadly, this exposure can result in serious consequences, including death.

While in Yuma, Putnam and others, including Assistant Professor David Hondula, surveyed people experiencing homelessness to gather information not only about their awareness and experience with cooling centers in their community, but also to find out how they might feel about other potential cooling strategies.

“We hope to better understand what the best strategy is for keeping people experiencing homelessness in Yuma County safe and cool during the summer months,” Putnam said. “If we could devise a successful model, we could hopefully share that with colleagues outside of Arizona to improve the safety of people experiencing homelessness everywhere.”

While the summer heat in Arizona gathers headlines for its sky-high temperatures, it isn’t the only state where heat has a negative impact on the health of the homeless and low-income populations.

“We're seeing more and more cities and counties across the country looking to enhance the services they provide to residents to help them cope with extreme heat,” said Hondula, an assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and a researcher with the Urban Climate Research Center.

“One major theme of our extreme-heat research is to build the evidence base about what interventions are effective for protecting public health when hot weather occurs. The opportunity to partner with Arizona Department of Health Services and Yuma County Public Health Services District gives us a great chance to understand the ins and outs of one particular intervention, cooling centers, which helps us more broadly think about how to measure and communicate the effectiveness of that intervention and many others.”