Extreme heat: What King County’s emergency preparedness planner wants you to know

A Q&A with JJ Edge: steps to take during extreme heat, what the county is doing and why Washingtonians are particularly susceptible to the heat.

By: - August 15, 2023 4:06 pm

Look out for symptoms of heat exhaustion or heatstroke. (National Weather Service)

Washington is dealing with some of the hottest temperatures of the year yet this week.

The National Weather Service has issued an extreme heat warning for much of the Puget Sound area and is calling the week’s forecast “dangerously hot conditions.” Temperatures are in the high 90s across the state, with some areas passing 100 degrees, and likely won’t dip until Thursday. 

The Standard spoke with JJ Edge, King County Public Health’s emergency preparedness planner, about what people should know as they deal with the week’s heat. 

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How are you doing today? 

I’m warm! 

Me too! So what is King County doing about it? 

Well, for extreme weather events specifically, we receive alerts through NWS. We look at their heat risk values to understand how much of an impact it’s going to have on our community. Right now, we’re at ‘major’ or ‘red’ heat threshold. You’ll see a lot of cooling centers have been opened. Cities are doing outreach to folks experiencing homelessness and other at-risk groups. We work with all of our partners to do that. 

Who’s most at-risk during these extreme heat events? 

One of the things with extreme heat we’re seeing is everyone is at risk. Everyone has to take proactive steps. There are risk factors that make some folks more at risk than others, and what that means is they’ll see the impacts a lot sooner than other folks. Age is a risk factor. Older adults, younger children are more sensitive to heat. Their bodies can’t thermoregulate as easily. 

If you’re on certain medications, a lot of healthy adults might not be thinking about that. Folks with chronic health conditions are more sensitive to heat distress. Check with your doctor and learn more about your risk that way. 

The third at-risk factor ties to the outdoors: folks experiencing homelessness who are in direct exposure to the heat — that can magnify heat stress on the body. Folks who normally exercise outdoors should exercise in the morning; walk your dog in the evening. Stay out of the sun as much as possible. Outdoor workers as well: folks outside doing construction all day, but also delivery service workers going out all day. 

Check on your neighbors. Now is a really good time to do that. 

Are there any particular medications people should be aware of that make you particularly susceptible to extreme heat? 

Talk to your medical provider. The mix of your own individual risk factors is so different from the next. I can talk generally: thyroid and blood pressure-related medications are ones that are going to increase [risk]. Mental health drugs. [Recreational] drug use is another one. Alcohol dehydrates you. All of these stresses on our body, whatever they look like, are just going to be exacerbated by the heat. 

Are there any myths you’d want to dispel about extreme heat events? 

One of the biggest things I get when I say ‘we’re having heat in the Pacific Northwest’ is people from California, or the Midwest, say ‘what is your temperature?’ Well, 80 degrees [in the Pacific Northwest] looks different from extreme heat in Phoenix. The biggest thing I want people to understand about extreme heat is it’s relative to the climate we’re talking about. Extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest is not just about the temperature. 

Because we have more temperate climates, our bodies are more acclimated to temperate climates across the board. We use the forecast as the heat risk, not just for the temperature itself, but how outside the norm it is. It also takes into account the danger of it. And it’s not just that our daytime temperatures are elevated, but our nighttime temperatures are elevated as well. This is what makes it an extreme heat event. 

The other thing people in hotter climates don’t understand, I find, is that many of us in the Pacific Northwest don’t have air conditioning. I mean, I’m sitting here sweating with my crappy portable AC. 

One of the unique risk factors here is we can have exposure to indoor heat as well. Our homes and apartments out here are built with south-facing windows and materials that let in heat easily and stay hotter. My room stayed at 82 degrees all day. My own crappy portable AC unit was kept at about 76, 77 degrees and that felt cooler to me. 

So what can people do to protect their health and safety during extreme heat events? 

Keep your indoors cool for as long as possible. Close your curtains. Put up emergency blankets. You can go to the dollar store and get cheap mylar curtains. Don’t turn on your oven or stove if you can avoid it. You don’t want to increase indoor temperatures anymore than it will naturally. 

Stay hydrated! I know it sounds like something your mother might tell you, but drink water frequently, not just when you’re thirsty. You’re going to be losing hydration through sweat. You need to supplement. 

Don’t take extreme heat as business as usual. If you’re not feeling well, if you’re seeing signs like excessive sweating, headaches, nausea, look to move to cool locations. Take a cold shower, do whatever you can to keep your body cool. King County and other jurisdictions have offered cooling locations. If those are too far or not appealing, think about just taking an hour or so in an air-conditioned cafe just to give your body some period of recovery, because the temperatures themselves aren’t going to help us do that over the next couple of days. 

We know these events are only going to increase as climate change continues. What can individuals do to prepare in advance? What is the county doing in terms of long-term planning? 

We can talk about the steps individuals can take just before or during extreme heat events, but individual actions are going to be mostly consequence management at that point. 

The steps we take now to stop all of this in the long-term are really important as a community effort. It’s systemic change in energy, housing, transportation, health policy that needs to work together in order to prevent those negative health outcomes. 

Another thing is not just what we do in response, but what we do beforehand to support those who can’t necessarily take some of the prevention steps right now. For wildlife smoke, for example, which overlaps with extreme heat quite often, we have a box fan filter program. We know that HEPA filters are not necessarily affordable for a lot of people. So this is really a DIY resource. 

King County Public Health also has a climate and health initiative that’s looking to better understand how folks are actually impacted by climate change by these extreme events so we can design better programs. So things like a really good study that our Department of Natural Resources and partners did. Some of that data, I know, helped show where it would be most helpful to plant trees to reduce urban heat islands. 

Is there anything else you’d want to talk about? 

I can tell people that an extreme heat event is happening right now. I can tell them what to do. But I really need folks to take those steps to help themselves stay healthier, and [seeing people take] that last little hop is what gives me definite hope. I know that we’ve seen an increase in air conditioning units in homes since the 2021 heat event. I know that we’ve seen less emergency visits from heat-related illnesses. 

So I do have hope for the future. I really, really hope folks take these steps seriously and take that last little hop to protect themselves and the community overall. 

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Grace Deng
Grace Deng

Grace Deng joined the Washington State Standard shortly after graduating from Northwestern University in June 2023. Grace, who currently lives in Tacoma, is a local Washingtonian who was born and raised in Snohomish County. She has previous experience covering statehouse politics and policy for the Minnesota Reformer and the USA TODAY Ohio Network, which includes the Columbus Dispatch, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Akron-Beacon Journal.