Heatwaves pose a significant risk to public health. Heat-related illness can range from mild conditions, such as a rash or cramps, through to heat exhaustion, and finally to potentially fatal conditions such as heat stroke.
After the 2009 heatwave in Victoria, the Department of Health developed a heatwave framework to help reduce the impact on public health. While the framework and collective efforts of agencies contributed to a reduction in the severity of the impact of the 2014 heatwave, there are shortcomings that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency if Victoria is to be adequately prepared for, and able to respond appropriately to, a prolonged heatwave.
Governance arrangements for heatwaves are not clear. While Victoria Police is the identified control agency for the response to heatwaves, there is a lack of clear and effective leadership to provide a coordinated multi-agency approach to the state’s heatwave management.
There is no mandatory requirement for agencies to have a heatwave plan. While each of the audited councils and health services had a plan, the effectiveness of the heatwave framework is compromised because it is being applied selectively by agencies. The quality of the plans, and the triggers for activation of the plans, are also variable.
Public health messages about the potentially significant health risks associated with extreme heat need to be disseminated more effectively to the broader community and not just targeted to the most vulnerable groups. Community members need to understand not only the nature of the potential risks to health but also how to manage these risks appropriately.