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Policy revamp might save lives in next heat dome, but so could community, say experts

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VICTORIA — She died in the arms of firefighters.

The 96-year-old woman now lingers in the memory of Chief Jim Ogloff of the Coquitlam Fire Department, a reminder of the impact of last summer’s heat dome disaster on vulnerable residents of British Columbia.

“She was elderly, clearly in a lot of distress,” Ogloff said, recalling the efforts of his officers who attended an emergency call to the woman’s townhouse in late June 2021.

“They tried to cool her down … They were unable to transport her because she was in such frail shape,” he said, and the woman died before she could be taken to hospital. She was one of more than 600 who perished in B.C. in the weeklong heat wave of historic magnitude.

The legacy of their deaths can be found in a range of policies and proposals brought in since then to mitigate such a disaster in future, including a heat-alert system and calls to re-examine building codes. But the deaths of so many residents, vulnerable and alone like the woman who Ogloff’s officers tried to save, also points to the crucial role played by social bonds.

“It takes a community, let me put it that way,” said Prof. Kim McGrail, a population data expert at the University of B.C.’s school of population and public health, who served on the BC Coroners Service death review panel that released a report and recommendations this month about the deadly outcomes of the heat dome.

Strategies need to involve both the machinery of government and the compassion of neighbours looking out for each other to succeed, officials and health and community experts agree.

“Pragmatism, I think, is one of the most important things we should lean on here,” said Dr. Jatinder Baidwan, chief medical health officer at the BC Coroners Service, at a news conference releasing the death review panel’s report.

Temperatures surpassed 40 C across much of the province around the last week of June 2021, when a high-pressure system trapped a blanket of hot air over the province.

Most of the 619 victims identified by the death review were elderly or vulnerable people living alone in buildings without air conditioning, it said. Ninety-eight per cent died indoors and most lived in socially or materially deprived conditions.

Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group that investigates abuses worldwide, said in an October 2021 report that inadequate government support compounded risks for people with disabilities and older people, and the province’s lack of a heat-action plan contributed to unnecessary suffering and possible deaths.

In response to the disaster, the B.C. government announced a two-stage heat response system this month, including a public awareness and preparedness program and emergency heat alerts to be broadcast to mobile devices.

The alerts will be sent through the national Alert Ready system, which is already used to issue Amber Alerts and tsunami, wildfire and flood warnings, said B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth.

The death review panel had three major recommendations: a co-ordinated heat alert response system and emergency protocols; a plan to identify, locate and support people most at risk of dying during a heat emergency; and the implementation of long-term heat prevention and mitigation strategies.

These include reviewing rebate plans for cooling devices in homes and changing building codes to require cooling designs.

On Monday, the B.C. government also unveiled a $513-million Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy to prepare and protect people and communities from wildfires and floods.

Baidwan said last year’s heat wave was not taken seriously enough, by officials or individuals. “We’re all guilty of that,” he said.

Ogloff, who was also a member of the death review panel, said B.C. was “moving in the right direction” by recognizing the impact of the heat wave.

Fourteen people died in Coquitlam due to the emergency, Ogloff said.

He recalled an emergency response system that was stretched to near breaking point, with the fire department receiving more than double the emergency calls it usually does on weekends in June.

“When the resources are pulled in an extreme way that is unprecedented, you start to see some of the fissures appear and you can see how that overwhelms the system,” said Ogloff.

The emotional toll on emergency workers was traumatic, he said.

“It puts an incredible toll on the first responder community because they know there are people out there who are in desperate need of help. But there is only so much to go around,” he said.

“I think it just highlights the importance of the first-responder community, the police, fire, ambulance and how important it is that they all work together because the pieces are so interconnected,” Ogloff said.

He said he believed the new emergency response system will make the province better prepared to face the next heat dome, with harmonized messages about what to do and the dangers of heat emergencies reaching as many people as possible, Ogloff said.

Prof. McGrail said it would not be until the next hot-weather emergency that the effectiveness of the new preparedness plans could be evaluated.

“It’s hard to know how much worse it could have been but the fact the coroners service identified more than 600 people who died as a direct result of the heat dome was sufficient evidence that we were caught off guard,” she said.

McGrail said the death review panel’s report indicated “there’s a lot of will and intent to make sure there is a clear plan for a response and a way to co-ordinate that.”

The report said 67 per cent of the people who died were 70 years and older and 90 per cent of the people were aged over 60.

McGrail said any preparedness plan must focus on where these people live, ensure they are aware of the dangers they face and advise friends, neighbours and loved ones to make contact, McGrail said.

“We just need to make sure we are checking in on them … I wouldn’t want to underplay our ability to rally the community to help each other,” she said.

McGrail pointed to the importance of data analysis identify areas at greatest risk.

Rowan Burdge, provincial director of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, said the province needed to ensure access to cooling centres.

She said some people couldn’t leave their buildings for cooling centres during the heat dome due to mobility issues and some refused to venture outdoors because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said free transit during heat emergencies would help people get to cooling centres or making sure people have a cool place to go where they live.

“Places like shelters, (single-room hotels), all of these places should have an air-conditioned space in the building where people are able to access, and that wasn’t the case during the last heat wave.”

The death panel report calls on the government to review issuing cooling devices to at-risk people by Dec. 1.

Burdge, who has Type 1 diabetes, said she could have used air conditioning herself during the heat dome. But it was the support of friends that helped her get through it.

She said her insulin, which she receives through a pump, weakened as it became hotter, her blood sugar level spiked and she could not cool down.

“I’m a renter and live in an apartment building that doesn’t have air conditioning and I actually didn’t realize how sick I was getting for a couple days of being in the apartment,” Burdge said. “It must have been in the 40s because it was just brutal.”

“My brain functioning, and brain fog was on a level I hadn’t experienced at that point.”

Because of her chronic illness and the pandemic, Burdge was trying to stay away from crowds and public spaces.

Eventually, friends got her into a cool bath and took her to places with air conditioning, she said.

More must be done to be ready for the next emergency, Burdge said.

“I really, firmly believe strongly in my heart we’re not doing enough, and I do think if there was a heat wave tomorrow or next week we wouldn’t actually be prepared or set up to take care of people properly,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26 2020.

 

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

 

 

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Many federal government employees balking at returning to offices – CBC News

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The federal government is facing pushback from employees reluctant to return to government offices after more than two years working from home.

Online forums for public servants have exploded in recent weeks with comments about the prospect of returning to offices, with employees comparing notes on the hybrid work plans each department is planning to adopt.

One comment by a Health Canada manager urging employees to return to the office, in part, to provide employees at a nearby Subway restaurant with more hours, blew up into a series of sarcastic memes online. 

A meme of Marie Antoinette.
A comment by a Health Canada manager urging employees to return to the office, in part, so that employees at a local Subway restaurant would get more hours sparked an explosion of memes in online discussions among federal workers. (Screen capture from Canada’s Federal Public Service on Reddit)

Public service unions say that while some employees want to return to working in government offices or are happy with a hybrid arrangement, a majority want to keep working from home as Canada experiences a seventh wave of COVID-19.

“We have done studies of our membership that show that 60 per cent of our members would prefer to stay in a work from home situation, 25 per cent would like to do a hybrid and 10 per cent would like to come back to the office full time,” said Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents about 70,000 workers, including scientists and computer specialists.

Union wants remote work included in collective agreements

Carr said the union has been flooded with messages from concerned members.

“I would say that our inbox is now 90 per cent about return to the office, how people are not feeling comfortable, how they have questions about masking requirements, about the need and the necessity to come into the office when they can work in the safety of their own home and do the work efficiently.”

WATCH | Treasury Board president on federal employees‘ return to work:

Treasury Board president Mona Fortier on the future of work in the public service

22 hours ago

Duration 1:53

Treasury Board president Mona Fortier explains the steps the government is taking to adopt a hybrid work environment where many employees will work part of the time from offices and part of the time from their homes.

Greg Phillips, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), which has called for a suspension of the return to the office, said his members have long favoured hybrid work. They feel the return to the office is being rushed and that their concerns aren’t being addressed, he said. 

CAPE has more than 20,000 members including economists, translators, employees of the Library of Parliament and civilian members of the RCMP.

“By and large, the people that don’t want to go back into the office have been fairly vocal about it,” said Phillips.

“They haven’t even addressed … in a lot of cases, accommodation needs.”

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) — the largest federal government union, with nearly 230,000 members — is calling on the government to be flexible about bringing employees back into the office and to address their anxieties.

“We know that most of our members are still working remotely, and many want to continue having that flexibility,” the union said in a statement. “Remote work has become a part of everyday life for many workers and we’ll continue to fight to enshrine it in our collective agreements during this round of bargaining with Treasury Board and agencies.”

‘Hybrid work is here to stay’: Treasury Board

In an interview with CBC News, Treasury Board president Mona Fortier said hybrid work is the future of the federal public service. She said it is up to each department or agency to figure out how to make it work while keeping employees safe and getting the job done.

“Hybrid work is here to stay,” said Fortier. “So we need to really understand that hybrid work will be part of how we deliver programs and services to Canadians. I know that a lot of people believe that COVID is gone, but we’re still in a COVID space.”

The latest debate over where public servants should work was sparked by a memo from Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette on June 29, urging public service managers to develop hybrid models of work that meet the operational requirements of their departments.

“Now is the time for us to test new models with a view to full implementation in the fall, subject to public health conditions,” she wrote.

Charette said hybrid work models offer “meaningful opportunities” such a more nationally distributed workforce and more flexibility for employees while bringing people back together in an office has benefits such as enhanced generation of ideas, knowledge transfer and building a strong public service culture.

Different plans for different federal departments

That memo prompted managers to start ramping up plans for employees to start to return to government offices after Labour Day and contacting employees to formalize how many days they would be expected to work from the office.

Union leaders say the result has been a patchwork quilt with some departments telling employees to return to the office several days a week while others are more flexible.

They say the wide range of policies is also resulting in some departments trying to poach the best and the brightest talent from other departments by offering more work from home flexibility and employees seeking transfers to departments more open to working from home.

Still others are considering leaving the federal public service, rather than return to government offices.

In online forums such as Canada’s Federal Public Service on Reddit, public servants have been comparing information about return-to-office plans. While a handful support the move, many are sharply critical of the plan to bring employees back into offices, the way it is being rolled out or who is being selected to return to the office.

A man looks out a window
Greg Phillips, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, says his union members have long favoured hybrid work but feel the current return-to-office plan is too rushed. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

In some cases, commenters reported being told to return to the office only to spend their time in video conference meetings.

“Commuting an hour a day to see no one I work with and communicate almost exclusively with (MS) Teams and email is utterly pointless,” wrote one.

“There’s the email from our ESDC DM — expected in the office at least some of the time,” wrote another. “Excuse me while I scream obscenities into the void.”

Some complained their department announced one plan – only to change it.

“We were asked to sign telework agreements, in which full time telework was one of the options,” said one commenter who said they worked at the Justice Department. “And now, suddenly, full time telework is off the table and it’s a two day in office minimum.”

Risk of contracting COVID-19 a concern for some

“They pretty much told us we wouldn’t be forced back if we didn’t want to,” responded one commenter who said they worked at Statistics Canada. “Now minimum two days starting Sept. 12.”

For others, the concern is the risk of catching COVID-19 from a co-worker or the working conditions in some government office.

Leaders such as Phillips say the comments on forums like Reddit are in line with what they are hearing from their members.

“You see all sorts of government employees comparing notes between what one department is doing and another department is doing and it’s creating mass confusion.”

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A secret no more: Canada's 1st codebreaking unit comes out of the shadows – CBC.ca

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For years, Sylvia Gellman’s loved ones were left in the dark about what she did for a living in the early 1940s. 

But in a mansion that once sat along Laurier Avenue East, Gellman and her colleagues — many of whom were women — worked to assist a top secret mission: cracking codes and ciphers used in secret and diplomatic communications during the Second World War.   

“No one outside knew what we were doing,” the 101-year-old told CBC Ottawa on Saturday.

“You were so aware of it being a secret mission. And you didn’t tell anybody. And I followed that very closely. I didn’t even tell my family.”

On Saturday morning, a plaque honouring the Examination Unit, Canada’s first cryptographic bureau, was unveiled at the Laurier House National Historic Site, next door to where Gellman once worked.

The house was also the residence of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s prime minister during the Second World War.

Gellman said while her loved ones knew she had a top-secret job, they hardly understood the breadth of her work. Those duties included typing out decoded Japanese messages before they were rushed to what was then called the Department of External Affairs. 

Intelligence was also shared with the British government’s Bletchley Park, a centre of Allied code-breaking where names like Alan Turing walked the halls

Sylvia Gellman said while her family knew she had an important job during the Second World War, she kept its precise nature a closely guarded secret. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Having the unit’s contributions to Canada officially marked with a plaque was something of a pandemic project for Diana Pepall, who’s researched the bureau since 2014. 

It’s no surprise that so few people know about the efforts of Gellman and her coworkers, Pepall said. 

“When they left, they all got a memo saying, ‘Just because war is over and you’re no longer working here, you’re not allowed to talk about this for the rest of your life.'” she said. “I’ve seen the actual memo.” 

One woman Pepall found during her research said that two years of her mother’s life had always been unaccounted for — until they were filled in by the researcher’s efforts.

“The mother was right there, and then gave a 20-minute speech that nobody had ever heard before on her work at the Examination Unit,” Pepall said. 

Researcher Diana Pepall said the Examination Unit helped the nation become more independent of Britain. She’s been looking into the bureau since 2014. (Joseph Tunney/CBC )

Helped strengthen Canada’s independence

The unit’s success also marked an important milestone in Canada’s independence within the intelligence community.

In some ways, the Examination Unit grew into the Communications Security Establishment (CSE): the national cryptologic agency that provides the federal government with information technology security and foreign signals intelligence. Many employees went from one secretive organization to another, said Erik Waddell, who also works for CSE.

“The codebreaking work they did during the war proved, not only to our allies, but to Canadian government officials and ministers and the prime minister, that there was in fact a value in Canada having its own independent intelligence gathering ability,” he said. 

“[It also proved] that it was worth preserving that capacity after the war.”

The work of Gellman and others, Waddell said, also “helped build, foster and maintain” partnerships with its allies, something that’s been crucial to the establishment of Five Eyes, a key intelligence-sharing alliance on today’s world stage.

For Gellman, the Examination Unit was more than just her place of work: it was a second home where she met two lifelong friends. 

Having lost a brother in the war, Gellman said she understood her job’s importance and was proud to work at the cryptographic bureau.

“I felt the whole thing was amazing, what was going on,” she said. “I really did.”

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Its a Jungle out there: Microscopic Threats abound

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COVID-19 and its many variants, Monkeypox and several sexually transmitted diseases that have been with us for many decades looking for hosts. Yup, these viruses have been with us for a long time and infection rates are continually increasing. Protection from these invaders is legion and often have some familiarity with each other. HIV infections have increased globally by 23% since 2018. There seems to be a new Sexual Transmitted disease(STD) announced every few months. Viruses have regional pandemic control, but with the ease of travel the spread of threatening viruses continues and our health systems are often not ready for this spread. Our medical professionals are at their wits ends, burnt out and often migrating to a newer, less stressful profession, leaving us with staff shortages globally.

How to stay safe and healthy during this time? Well, don’t laugh folks. Really. Here goes.

1. Get your vaccinations for Covid-19 and Monkeypox(where available).

2. Masks are still a barrier between you and what can harm you in the air around you.

3. Know who you’re having intimate relations and contact. Meaning who you are getting close to, hugging, kissing and yes having sex with. Monkeypox passes onto others through contact with clothing, fabric items, intimate touching etc. Do you remember the old 6-9 feet rule(2-3 meters)? That will work. Monkeypox spreads through the contact period. Sexual contact too, even if you are using protection like a condom(good for you if you’re trying to ward off STDs). Know the activities of family members, and keep in mind that your family and communities overall health is dependent upon what we all do. If there is a person who goes to bars, sporting activities and the like, who gets into large groups of people where there is a chance of infection? I guess what I am trying to say is that a person who walks into a very dark alley late at night should not be surprised if a bad thing could happen to them. Victim shaming? No way. Being realistic and using commonsense to plan my activities. Take yourself away from places and persons who could possibly infect you.

4. Educate yourself, family and friends. Knowledge will help you stay away from the viral crouching tigers out there, waiting to pounce upon you. True medical professionals can and will help you, educate and direct you towards a healthy outcome. So-called fake news needs to be ignored.

These last two years have been difficult for sure. I know of 17 individuals who have died because of Covid-19, several people who have been struggling with various STDs for years, and no one who has been infected by Monkeypox. All the illnesses that surround us have one thing in common. The host allows them in, either through ignorance or mishap(unintentionally). So far my family and I have been safe from these viruses. Fingers crossed eh?

Folks, what do you tell your children when they need to cross the street? Look both ways before crossing. Good advice folks. Observe your surroundings and think carefully before you act.

Steven Kaszab
Bradford, Ontario
skaszab@yahoo.ca

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