Connecting state and local government leaders
The EMS HeatTracker can help public health officials ensure emergency medical services reach those who need them most.
The costs of climate change are obvious when a hurricane flattens a small town or when a wildfire leaves a community in ashes, but there’s one side effect of a warming climate that isn’t so plain to see: extreme heat.
Indeed, the hotter daily temperatures and warming climates of recent years are making the impacts of heat, widely regarded as a silent killer, too loud to ignore. For public health officials, extreme heat puts residents at a higher risk for life-threatening heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke or heat exhaustion.
To track emergency response to heat-related illnesses, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently launched a national dashboard. The EMS HeatTracker uses patient data submitted by emergency medical services to the National EMS Information System. It shows the number of 911 calls for heat-related illness and injury and the average EMS response time down to the county level, officials said in an Aug. 9 statement announcing the dashboard.
The dashboard aims to help state, regional and local officials determine the best locations for heat resilience investments such as cooling centers or outreach services to at-risk populations. Users can view EMS response data by patient age, race, gender and community type such as urban, suburban and rural to better understand the needs of different populations. Data will be updated weekly, officials said.
For governments trying to manage their response to heat waves, “it’s hard to improve the outcomes … if you don’t actually have accurate information on what’s going on,” said Ladd Keith, an assistant professor of planning and sustainable built environments at the University of Arizona. The EMS HeatTracker “will make it much more likely that we can address [extreme heat] effectively and efficiently.”
Among states, however, heat dashboards have already made headway. The Virginia Department of Health, for example, has supported a state-level heat-related illness dashboard for about three years with data going back to 2015, according to Meredith Davis, an epidemiologist at VDH. The dashboard tracks heat-related hospital visits from May to September, which Davis said is a typical heat season.
Like the national tool, VDH’s dashboard breaks down data by age, gender and ethnicity, which helps local officials prioritize heat mitigation strategies and resources, said Bob Mauskapf, director of the state’s Office of Emergency Preparedness. Even though Virginia has its own heat data resource, he said, the federal EMS HeatTracker can mobilize discussions with neighboring state and local officials on heat management.
“Heat doesn’t recognize state boundaries,” Mauskapf said. The ability to see how neighboring states’ EMS teams respond to heat-related 911 calls through the national dashboard can spur directors of public health preparedness to share information on successful heat management initiatives.
For Arizona, the national EMS data tracker can help fill in data gaps where communities may lack the resources and expertise to develop their own dashboards, said Niki Lajevardi-Khosh, a program manager within the state’s Department of Health Services, or AZDHS.
The EMS HeatTracker can also beef up heat data for agencies that collect information differently. For instance, the AZDHS heat dashboard only considers syndromic surveillance data collected by emergency rooms. That means its dashboard represents patients’ symptoms of heat when they arrive at the hospital, not what is recorded in discharge reports, Lajevardi-Khosh said. Syndromic data provides a “snapshot of what’s going on in an emergency room,” she said, and can be collected and uploaded to the dashboard faster than hospital discharge data, which can take up to a year to be processed and analyzed.
With the national dashboard, Arizona can supplement gaps in its own heat data, Lajevardi-Khosh said. The EMS HeatTracker, for example, offers “more information about how [quickly] EMS is arriving to patients, so that’s something that’s not in our dataset.” The EMS response data could help state and local officials in Arizona better manage ambulance services to reach residents that are most at-risk for heat-related illnesses.
“This summer we’ve seen record-breaking temperatures that have been surprising to many,” Keith said of heat dashboards, “but with climate change increasing those temperatures in the future, [governments] need greater investment in these types of tools.”