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With months of summer ahead, 3 things to know about CT's emergency response to high heat

Matt King (behind) and John Shettleworth (in front) of the Westfield Fire Department open up help fight the heat by opening a number of fire hydrants around town on July 9th, like this one at the Highlands Crescent Drive bus stop.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Matt King (behind) and John Shettleworth (in front) of the Westfield Fire Department open up help fight the heat by opening a number of fire hydrants around town on July 9th, like this one at the Highlands Crescent Drive bus stop.

Temperatures are soaring across the East and West coast, as Connecticut’s second major heat wave hit the state this week.

The scorching weather comes amid record high temperatures last month, and after federal weather officials said May 2024 rounded out a full year of the globe’s warmest temperatures ever on record.

When it gets really hot, Connecticut officials have a plan. It’s called the “extreme hot weather protocol” and Gov. Ned Lamont activated it again this week to make sure residents stay as safe as possible, especially with extreme heat becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change.

With more summer days ahead, here’s what to know.

Getting the word out

Bill Turner, Connecticut’s emergency management director, said to declare this protocol, his department works with the governor's office, looking at the weather forecast and then putting the “wheels in motion” to let all partners, agencies and municipalities know to take action.

Those agencies include Connecticut’s Department of Health, Department of Social Services, and Department of Aging, who share messaging to their communities. The emergency management office also has regional coordinators that make a big push of information about cooling center spots to 169 municipalities.

Cooling centers are usually in public buildings that are already up and running – think public libraries, senior centers, recreational centers. They’re also often in churches.

In 2023, Connecticut activated its hot weather protocol three times, and 100 cooling centers spanning more than 30 towns were listed in a statewide database. This year, the heat wave that began in mid-June had over 160 cooling centers active in the 211 database across more than 60 Connecticut municipalities.

Staying up-to-date

Cities and towns, not statewide alerts on your phone, primarily spread the word about cooling centers and other ways to beat the heat.

“We leave it up to the towns how they want to broadcast that information in these situations,” Turner said. “We try to reserve use of a statewide alert for those situations where there's really some sort of life-threatening emergency that we need to get a message out.”

Those statewide messages are wireless emergency alerts – where cell phones can be geo-targeted and alerted – whether or not a person signed up. Partners at the National Weather Service also trigger similar emergency alerts for things like a tornado warning, or flash flood.

But there are also ways to get phone alerts about less extreme weather events – or information about what a town is doing to combat extreme heat, Turner said.

That’s where the state’s “CT Alert” system can help: It lets people who sign up get messages by phone or email from municipalities about weather, or other local emergencies. A lot of the towns use it, Turner said, and some have their own platform.

When the governor activates the state’ “extreme hot weather protocol” Connecticut’s 211 service also ramps up, adding more people who can take calls. Municipalities can submit their cooling center locations to the service’s website: 211ct.org.

Planning for weather extremes

Municipalities typically run cooling centers on their own, and can make requests for more resources through their emergency response regional coordinator.

Additionally, federal emergency grant funds are available annually for municipalities to apply for, and Turner said cities and towns get a set amount based on their population per capita. At least 120 of Connecticut’s cities and towns regularly apply, he said.

Connecticut’s State Department of Emergency Management also regularly evaluates challenges presented by other hazards.

“We definitely look at heat, but I think the wildfire and the smoke is something that there's been a lot more discussions on as a result of what transpired last summer,” Turner said.

Leveraging federal funds to focus on flood mitigation projects has been part of that, “being the top hazard” at this point, he said.

Learn more

Interested in signing up for local alerts about the weather and ways to beat the heat? Residents are encouraged to go onto their town's website and find out what alert system they're using, or follow them on social media.

As Connecticut Public's state government reporter, Michayla focuses on how policy decisions directly impact the state’s communities and livelihoods. She has been with Connecticut Public since February 2022, and before that was a producer and host for audio news outlets around New York state. When not on deadline, Michayla is probably outside with her rescue dog, Elphie. Thoughts? Jokes? Tips? Email msavitt@ctpublic.org.