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QUEBEC INRS PREPARING FOR EXTREME HEAT, COLD WAVES
WT Interview with Fateh Chebana, Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS), July 27, 2021. The transcription below has been edited for clarity and length.
WT: I would like to hear all about what you are up to, the paper you wrote, and Iíd like to discuss a little bit of the France 2003 heat event where 15 thousand people died because of a heat wave. Can you tell me what your paper is about and what you want to do?
Chebana: You are right when you talk about the heat waves in Europe in 2003, this was the starting point of this kind of work. We started to develop this kind of system in Europe, a warning system for health. In 2003 it was in force in Quebec, we had one system developed in 2005 only for Montreal, which sometimes can apply it to the rest of the province, but this is not appropriate. In 2010 we developed a system to cover all the province, each region has its own system, thresholds and climate indicators.
The systems were developed to cover only the main months of the season, May, June, July, August, but the problem is, the system is working very well since 2010 with the public health authorities of Quebec but several years ago we started to see some heat events outside the season, in April, and in October.
Sometimes I will hear people sayĒ September looks like August or July, it's very hotĒ, so we need to extend the period covered by the system, but the problem is we cannot keep the same threshold over the whole season, all the months from April to October. We need thresholds adapted to each month.
WT: When you talk about a national system, what does that mean? Does that mean thereís people on the ground in BC, Alberta and so on, or is it from satellite pictures? I'm trying to understand how you would come about a national heat warning system that would be accurate, my understanding with the Euro model.
Chebana: When we talk about National here, we mean the province of Quebec, not all of Canada.
Also the methodology can be applied and adapted to other provinces but we didnít do it yet, because the project was funded by public health of Quebec so we focused on the data for Quebec.
We are open ended, soon, it could be reasonable for the rest of Canada.
This one system is not exactly like the Environment Canada warning, which is for everyone, for the population.
This system is not directly for the population.When there is a heat wave, declared by the system, it sends the information first to the authorities, the public health directors of Quebec.
These directors decide what actions to take, how to prepare the health system, how to prepare hospitals, for example, how to prepare personnel; to ask municipalities to open the swimming pools for a longer period, or to open the libraries for more time.
WT: Right now, who does decide what to do with your information?
Chebana: It's in collaboration with Public Health Authorities of Quebec.
We can expect to have at least one to three years on the ground to apply it and see how it works, maybe we can see some adjustment and adaptations. If we talk about the system we are using now, we contribute to its design and development. How it works exactly Ė the system receives the forecasting from EC, forecasting of temperature maximum and minimum for the next three days and it computes the indicators. If the indicators exceed beyond some threshold, example for Montreal the maximum is 33 degrees, and the minimum as well should be beyond 21 or 20 degrees, then it sends an email to the authorities, something like ďwe are expecting a heat wave in the next three daysĒ and then the authorities will decide locally what to do.
WT: One of the things that I am thinking about in terms of heat wave is, if I have a vineyard or I grow grapes, extreme heat is a worrisome thing to me, do you know if any of this will be applied to agriculture systems?<
Chebana: In terms of agriculture, to be honest with you , in principle the idea could be applied, but I donít think the exact results will be , I donít think it will be adopted. The reason is, when we designed this system, it was based on the data from health. We include the EC data max and minimum, but the variable output is the health issue, which is in this case mortality, daily mortality and hospitalizations. If we can do the same thing for the agriculture sector, we would need to have a similar output (variable).
It cannot be applied directly because those thresholds and indicators are computed, are data driven, from health data.
WT: Is the goal to push this to 4, 5 or 6 days notice? One of the things that comes up around water, with bluegreen algae, heat triggers this, so it would be better further away, Iím wondering, when I go to EC and look at the temp report I look at 3-4 days down the road, but very often it' s inaccurate.
Will this system be dealing with the same problems as EC in trying to predict the weather?
Chebana: From my understanding, the principle looks like EC but it's not exactly the same, my understanding is the one from EC is generic for all sectors and it's not based on information from health.
This is the main difference. Our system is, we use the data from EC for sure, but we add another layer, because we use the data from health and this is what makes the difference. A little difference also is, EC when they take their climate stations, they are everywhere, some are in the forest, some are in the farms, but for our case, we take the stations that are close to the population, which means, we are closer to the reality of health.
WT: Just to cover a bit of business here, how much money did you get and how many people are working on this in your organization?
Chebana: So we are a team of ten people but we donít work on the same level. I am the professor in charge of the project; we have a Ph.D. student working full time, we also have technicians working on the extraction of the data, on the data processing. We have also other people, from Health Canada and from Public Health of Quebec, colleagues from INRS, as well other professors, another post-doc was here with us and now in UK, others that contribute but are not working full time on the project.
WT: In terms of the end product, would I come to say, a website and enter my password, and it would say, okay in three days the temperature is going to be this hot, or does it generate a huge data set that unless you are very specialized you wouldnít understand it?
Chebana: It's not a public website, and canít be seen by the general population, for me I donít have access to this, it's only for people who are working on it, the INRS Public Health of Quebec.
The website automatically takes the forecasting data from EC and combines it with our system to see if it exceeds the threshold or not and then automatically emails the concerned public health authorities.
It is difficult to make this information accessible to the general population, because it would be perceived differently by everyone. If we take someone in good health there is no problem, even 33 degrees, is not a problem. It's better to let the decision makers make the appropriate decision.
Maybe in the near future we can have some very targeted messages to send to specific people, for example if we know this kind of wave can
be harmful for people who are elderly or those over 65, we can send them a message ton their phones directly.
WT: So, a mobile alert system, thatís interesting. How many months from now should we rebook an interview to follow upon progress, what are the milestones here?
Chebana: Covid had a negative influence on our research in the sense that public health gave priority to Covid, so we hope when covid goes, hopefully shortly, we can come back and apply this system on the ground for the next two or three years and see how it will work. The system we developed with the extended season is only completed for the Montreal region, the next step after this is to apply the system to other regions.
WT: I would think a national system would be very important.
Chebana: we had a meeting, we were discussing with Health Canada last winter in March. With EC, we are discussing about using the system for cold waves.
WT: Both are just as important, just as dangerous. Would you encourage other universities that might want to get involved, or health regions to contact you directly?
Chebana: For sure, we are open to this, at least to learn from their sites in other provinces, from research, I am really interested to learn from them and to collaborate together to cover all of Canada.
WT: I certainly wish you luck doing this, this is needed, it's been a long time since this important thing has been talked about. After France, I couldnít understand why we werenít trying harder as a country, do you have anything to say to that, why it took so long?
Chebana: This system requires a high level of statistics, we need people in programming/ IT, itís a personnel issue, and a multi-disciplinary effort. Also, the language, we work in French but we are open to go to the next step, to export our expertise and share it with others.
WT: this is fascinating, I will follow up. I would like to thank Chebana, National Institute of Public Health Quebec, INRS. Thanks for doing this. Have a good day.
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