Hot Weather Has Become a Real Threat. Enter: The Chief Heat Officer

How Marta Segura is keeping Los Angeles residents safe as a “heat dome” scorches the Western U.S.
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Summer isn’t even here yet and things are heating up. This week, triple digit temperatures are hovering over Texas, California, and much of the Southwest, straining electrical grids and putting cities at risk of rolling blackouts. Extreme heat raises the risk of wildfires and creates health hazards for citizens—in 2023 more people died from heat than any year prior, for as long as the statistic has been recorded. In response, cities are creating a position that’s meant to tackle these issues head on. Enter: The Chief Heat Officer.

Globally, only about 10 people hold that title, which is responsible for coordinating a response to extreme heat events in order to keep people safe. In the U.S., Phoenix, Miami, and Los Angeles all have appointed someone to that role. Since 2022, Marta Segura has been heading up L.A.’s Office of Climate Emergency Management as its chief heat officer, where she formulates and executes action plans and heat mitigation strategies in tandem with the mayor’s office, which includes collaborating with communities to distribute key information on how to stay safe when the temperature rises.

Marta Segura was appointed Los Angeles’s chief heat officer in 2022.

Marta Segura was appointed Los Angeles’s chief heat officer in 2022.

In the midst of California’s first heat wave of 2024, which is hitting everywhere from the Sacramento Valley to parts of Southern California, Segura explains how governments can be proactive in addressing residents’ needs and vulnerabilities, and shares some tips on what everyone can do to keep themselves and their families safe during the hottest months.

Dwell: Tell us about your role as a heat officer, specifically in Los Angeles. Why does the city need one? What challenges are unique to the area?

Marta Segura: FEMA and other federal organizations have been doing studies on what the greatest vulnerabilities are for climate hazards. More recently, they’ve been focused on the areas most vulnerable to extreme heat. In response, Los Angeles County did a climate vulnerability assessment, making it the first in the region to do so. It quickly became very clear that extreme heat was L.A.’s most dangerous climate hazard for multiple reasons. During the pandemic, there were excessive deaths and emergency room visits from heat. Low-income communities were most vulnerable, since they are exposed to more pollution and have high rates of pre-existing health conditions. They don’t have access to air conditioning in most cases. If they do, they’re wary of using it because they don’t want to pay the bills. Sometimes it’s a choice between paying for rent or cooling.

The city began to recognize that these were preventable deaths, so they started advocating for a heat officer who could collaborate with other city departments to focus on a heat action plan to accelerate solutions. I work in climate adaptation, but also in advising the Emergency Management Department on emergency responses, like which cooling centers to open, and what infrastructure and amenities we need throughout the city to make it safer for pedestrians and people taking public transit—things like bus shelters, hydration stations, and shade structures. I want people to be aware that places like libraries and parks and recreation facilities are open to the public as a refuge from extreme heat. In libraries, we have hydration stations and librarians who can meet the needs of our multilingual communities.

What’s happening right now as L.A. experiences the first heat wave of 2024? How do you prepare for events like these?

We revamped key materials in more languages and we’re geographically targeting the communities that speak them. For example, we have Chinese, Korean, English, and Spanish. In the bus shelter programs, we want to make sure those communities receive the information that’s relevant to their language needs. We’re also making sure libraries receive these materials.

We also revised our adverse weather plan—a plan that helps all departments involved with a heat wave better prepare for extreme heat. We’re coordinating with the Emergency Management Department, the fire department, and street services just like we would for a storm or earthquake. We also revised our local hazard mitigation plan to include extreme heat. So now, all of these departments that respond to these weather events are doing so in a more coordinated fashion, and in a way that addresses inequities that weren’t being looked at before.

In the future, we’ll have a revised climate vulnerability assessment, which will give us even more information about at-risk communities so we can better prepare them and invest in resources and responses. I think as L.A. progresses, we’re going to get more and more adept at responding where the risks are higher. In the past, there has been an unequal distribution of resources to communities, and sometimes more resources were provided to ones that were more well-to-do. Now we are focused on ensuring the equitable distribution of climate solutions by engaging those communities through workshops, focus groups, and community assemblies so that they can tell us what they need. But we can also tell them, "Hey, these are the resources available to you. We want to make sure that you know about them, and that your communities are using them."

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Is participation increasing in neighborhoods that have traditionally been neglected?

Yeah, absolutely. When we did focus groups and surveys this last cycle, we were told that nobody would come to us for advice or input. But the leaders from those communities who are part of nonprofits in our partner network are helping us with a heat relief campaign, which is building trust. For example, there’s an organization called Vision y Compromiso. They are doing door to door outreach with our heat materials.

Why is it important to have this position in municipal government, and what are the limitations of the role?

We really needed a position that looked across public safety, emergency response, climate adaptation, and climate mitigation, all with an equity and environmental justice focus. No department did that. Our unit is ensuring that our heat action plan is utilized by the city’s various departments and the city mayor Karen Bass’s climate task force, which she calls the climate cabinet. This is so we reach our goals of heat mitigation, and can adapt and respond in a shorter time frame.

We’re creating a model that’s somewhat based on California’s emergency heat plan. But we added another track, where we’re going to create a governance strategy that ensures accountability and transparency so we can meet our goals in a much more coordinated fashion and report back to communities. We’ve come a long way. And we’re doing it with the engagement of the community and city leaders.

What’s the hardest part about what you do?

Just getting everybody to support the work and the vision of this is a very complex issue. But fortunately I have the support of the mayor’s office. Extreme heat is a major focus for the climate cabinet. It’s satisfying to engage people and coordinate and build trusted partnerships, but all of that is hard work. It’s necessary for any office, but particularly for something as complex as responding to extreme heat.

How do we get more municipalities that experience extreme heat events to adopt these strategies?

There are cities without heat officers that are using heat action planning within their climate goals. Tempe is a really good example. But this does add extra responsibility to the climate officers of those cities. I would recommend to those city governments and city managers that they add funding to do this work, because it’s not easy. And you'll need additional staff and capacity within those climate offices to do this additional work. 

I also want to say that in terms of getting ready, if you are a landlord, this is the perfect time to get compensated for installing heat pumps, insulation, and new roofing, because you can get up to 70 percent back from the federal government with the Inflation Reduction Act. Utilities and cities can also take advantage of the inflation reduction act with a program called direct pay. The City of Los Angeles is looking at how to modernize and create more climate-adapted buildings, including city structures and homes.

What can individuals do this summer to stay safe during extreme heat events?

I think we all need to stay cool and hydrated. You really need to listen to your body. Get a lot of rest, and make sure to wear light-colored clothing. You can take cool showers if you don't have air conditioning, and limit your caffeine intake, because caffeine dehydrates you. Seek out your city’s cooling centers. If it doesn’t have them, head to a library. You can go to other facilities that are open to the public, too, like malls. If you’re a pedestrian, or using public transportation, stay in the shade and stay hydrated.

If you feel like you have clammy skin, you’re sweating too much, you're tired, feeling dizzy, or have a headache or are experiencing nausea, you might be in the key injury zone. It could be heat exhaustion or a heat stroke. If you aren’t sure, call 911. In L.A., you can call 311 for access to resources and information. Stay informed by checking local news and practicing heat safety with a buddy system—you want to make sure that other people are aware that there’s a heat wave and you want to take care of each other, especially if you have elderly people in your family or community. Young people, pregnant women, and elderly with limited mobility are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat. The CDC has resources you can use, too.

Related Reading:

Should We Keep Living in Disaster-Prone Areas?

Top photo by Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images


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