As global temperatures continue to rise because of human-caused climate change, some cities in the United States are hiring “chief heat officers” to respond to extreme heat and its sometimes deadly ripple effects.
Earlier this month, Los Angeles became the latest and largest city to appoint its first-ever chief heat officer, joining Miami and Phoenix in adding the new position to their city leadership teams. Marta Segura, L.A.’s former director of climate emergency mobilization, now holds the new title in the nation’s second-largest city. As the city experiences more and longer heat waves, she’ll work with other city departments and public health officials to reduce heat-related deaths and hospitalizations. Responsibilities include adapting infrastructure to reduce heat and heat-related deaths, planting trees to provide cover, and informing the public about heat-related needs and rights.
Emergency departments in L.A. see an extra 1,500 patients per day during heat waves, said David Eisenman, director of the Center for Public Health and Disasters at the University of California, Los Angeles, at a press conference, as reported by CBS. An additional 16 people die than average during the first day of a heat wave in Los Angeles County, Eisenman said, and as that heat continues that number grows to 40 additional average deaths by the fifth day.
“We know heat disproportionately harms our Black and brown communities, our elderly, our children and this has to be the focus of any chief heat officer,” Eisenman told LA This Week, the city’s news program.
Miami-Dade County created what is believed to be the world’s first chief heat officer position in April 2021 by naming Jane Gilbert to the post. Phoenix—where 191 people died because of excessive heat in 2020—followed suit in October 2021 by tapping David Hondula to lead its new Office of Heat Response and Mitigation.
The idea of Chief Heat Officers isn’t exclusive to the US. Since Miami announced its position, Athens, Greece, Freetown, Sierra Leone, Monterrey in Mexico, and the Santiago metropolitan region in Chile have all hired in similar positions.
Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental protection Agency (EPA). It’s officially responsible for more than 11,000 deaths in the U.S. since 1979, but the EPA notes that the number may be even higher because heat-related deaths often go unreported. Americans who are over the age of 65, Black Americans, children, patients with cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses and economically disadvantaged populations are more vulnerable to heat and face a higher risk of death, on top of the disparities in mortality reporting, per the EPA.
High temperatures and humidity levels can cause heat-related illnesses such as heat cramps, heat stroke and heat exhaustion, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If the body cannot cool itself down, eventually, heat can damage the brain and vital organs.
Across the country, unusually hot summer temperatures—particularly at night, usually a relief from the heat—are starting to become the norm, per the EPA. On average in the U.S., heat waves are also occurring more often, becoming more intense and lasting longer. Heat tends to be exacerbated in cities because of the so-called “urban heat island” effect, which results from the high concentration of surfaces that absorb and retain heat, including pavement and buildings, and a lack of natural land cover like trees that can provide shade and absorb sunshine.
But despite the harm it causes, historically, heat hasn’t received the same level of emergency response and preparedness attention as other natural disasters—until now. As Sara Meerow, a social-ecological systems scientist at Arizona State University, tells NBC News’ Evan Bush and Alicia Victoria Lozano, heat is a deadly, “invisible hazard” that doesn’t cause the same visible destruction as disasters like wildfires and hurricanes.
“In most cities, it’s not entirely clear who is ultimately responsible for addressing heat risk right now,” Meerow says.