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New West police review 'catastrophic' heat wave after 38 sudden deaths

NWPD attended 38 sudden death investigations in one-week period
Heat wave getty
A NWPD review of calls during the recent heat wave showed officers responded to 38 sudden deaths during a one-week period.

The New Westminster Police Department responded to 38 sudden deaths in a one-week period during the recent heat wave – and that’s only the ones they attended.

Chief Const. Dave Jansen has provided a snapshot of the impact the recent heat wave had on the city, specifically looking at the sudden death investigations from June 27 to July 3.

“In that seven-day period, we had 38 death investigations,” he told the police board July 20. “To provide some context to that, looking back over the previous two years in that same time period, we attended two in 2020 and two in 2019. So that’s a significant increase.”

Jansen said police attend most sudden deaths, but they don’t attend all of them. He noted that the BC Coroners Service is responsible for determining if all of the recent sudden deaths were all attributed to the heat.

“The main impact to our organization occurred on June 29,” he said. “We saw our members attend 19 sudden deaths in a one-day period, which was pretty catastrophic for the loved ones, the seniors in our community, the elders, and obviously to our staff who had to attend the deaths.”

According to Jansen, 34 of the 38 investigations attended by local police were in multi-unit residences, with four occurring in single-family homes. Calls peaked on June 29 and 30.

“I came in that evening to just address the shift, because they had seen such an impact through the day, and while I was in the office the coroners’ line was so inundated with calls that it actually stopped working for a period of time,” he said. “That gives you a feeling for what their staff was going through.”

At investigation scenes, Janzen said NWPD members were waiting upwards of six-and-a-half hours in some instances to hear back from coroner’s service. He noted BC Coroners Service, the ambulance service, police, fire, hospitals and others were all feeling the impacts of the high call volumes.

Jansen said the police department is committed to working very closely with the city’s emergency operations centre and city council on efforts to respond to future heat occurrences.

“We recognize this could happen again, is probably going to happen again. We need to have as many resources and plans in place that we can,” he said. “The city is  committed, council is committed, quite vocally, that they will  do  advocacy work with whatever levels of government need to be engaged, in whatever resources we can to hopefully alleviate the impact that something like this will have on our community again.”

Sasha Ramnarine, a member of the police board, said the level of heat experienced was beyond what people had anticipated.

“It was unexpected. A lot of people, a day before when we saw the weather forecast, were thinking, ‘OK, we will have the fans on. We will be ok,’” he said. “Even myself, I am from the Caribbean, and it’s 38, 37 degrees – but it was nowhere near what I have experienced.”

Ramnarine said he’s pleased city council is advocating on this issue because different levels of government will have to be involved in the discussion.

“A lot of homes, a lot of buildings etc., are not necessarily built and designed to deal with such heat and weather,” he said. “A cohesive effort among the different levels of government – this is just my opinion –  is needed to expedite this. With climate change and what we have seen in other parts of the world and what we have just went through, this is probably going to happen more often and more regularly. We don’t want to wait for the next heat wave and then get ready.”

Heather Boersma, the newest appointee to the police board, said the various components of the emergency response system have their own emergency operating centre structures, but they typically work in silos. She questioned whether the creation of model that includes more stakeholders would be considered as part of the city’s advocacy with other levels of government.

Jansen said the need for more coordination has been recognized by Fire Chief Tim Armstrong, who heads the city’s emergency operation program.

“I think that’s exactly some of the conversations that are occurring right now,” he said.

Cote said it a review of the incident demonstrates how interrelated services such as police, fire and ambulance services are and the need to identify and address shortcomings.

“I know from our fire department, they would attend a scene and normally they stay on the scene until the ambulance arrived. Well there were no ambulances to arrive,” he said. “The fire department was put in the position where they did have to send patients to the hospital through whatever means that they could because no ambulance was arriving. It does show that when one system breaks and other systems break, it has a cascading effect.”

Police impacts

Ramnarine questioned how NWPD members fared during the heat wave and what supports are available to those who dealt with so many deaths.

“I can’t imagine what it is like to see so many people within a short window of time who have passed away because of the heat wave or any other issue,” he said.

Jansen said members of the NWPD’s mental health unit supported frontline officers by providing them with water, making sure they got breaks and had opportunities to cool down in air-conditioned police cars. He said the NWPD’s critical incident support team has engaged with officers who were part of the response to the sudden deaths.

During the heat wave, Jansen said it was “all hands on deck” with the NWPD having to call in numerous additional resources, including the department’s mental health unit and the child and youth at risk officer.

“Everybody was engaged, especially on June 29 when we saw so many investigations occur,” he said. “Our critical incidence support team has also been engaged to support staff. Police officers do get used to going to death investigations, but to go to that many in such a short period of time is obviously going to hve an impact on everyone. Like I said, it isn’t just the police, it’s all our frontline staff, city workers and all the loved ones of these folks who saw their loved one pass away.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus
Email tmcmanus@newwestrecord.ca