Jul 13, 2023 - Climate

How Phoenix's chief heat officer is combatting rising temperatures

Illustration of an officer with a fire-shaped badge

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Phoenix is one of just three cities or counties nationwide with a chief heat officer — a role that could become even more important as climate change ramps up temperatures and leads to longer, more severe heat waves.

Why it matters: Excessive heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer worldwide and some climate experts say it's past time that every major city has a dedicated team working on lowering temperatures and responding to heat disasters.

Zoom in: Phoenix was the first city in the country to publicly fund an Office of Heat Response and Mitigation in 2021.

  • The office has since been embedded in every city discussion that touches on heat — from homelessness to drought to building design, director David Hondula told reporters Wednesday.

Driving the news: When Miami-Dade County, Phoenix and Los Angeles appointed chief heat officers in 2021 and 2022, it was presumed that other major U.S. cities would quickly follow — but none have, Axios' Jennifer Kingston reports.

Yes, but: You don't necessarily need someone with the title of "chief heat officer" to have an effective strategy, some officials say.

  • "I think it's just really a case of semantics," Mesa Mayor John Giles told Axios.
  • "We do not have a chief heat officer, but I think our programming is the same or similar to Phoenix's," he said. "We work principally through our fire and medical departments — they coordinate our cooling centers and our hydration stations."

Zoom in: Hondula agreed it's not realistic or advisable for every city in the country to have an office like his, but in Phoenix it's proved helpful to make sure "it's somebody's job to be asking questions about heat and thinking about heat in the structure of city government."

The bottom line: "425 people died because of heat last year and if [there had been] a crime spree that resulted in 425 deaths ... imagine the scale of mobilization we would have to investigate what was happening," Hondula said.

  • "We're just not there on our heat preparedness in any community, Phoenix included."
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