SWEHSC co-sponsors Southern Arizona Heat Planning Summit

May 6, 2024
A stock image of a sunset in the desert.

On February 3rd, 2024, the University of Arizona hosted the Southern Arizona Heat Planning Summit, an event designed to bring together scientists, researchers, policy makers, local agencies and community members to discuss an issue pivotal to those of us in the desert Southwest: building heat resilience in arid lands like ours. The Summit was sponsored by the Pima County Health Department, City of Tucson, Tucson Resilient Together, and several University of Arizona groups, including the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center (SWEHSC), Southwest Center on Resilience for Climate Change and Health, Center for Rural Health’s AHEAD Arizona, Climate Assessment for the Southwest and the College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture. 

The Heat Planning Summit provided a space to explore strategies to enhance public health and safety in the face of extreme heat while meeting the needs of vulnerable populations. Led by different hosts, each breakout group focused on a theme related to heat resilience and responses to urban heat islands. These themes included public health and healthcare, community- and neighborhood-level action, workforce and heat protection, energy and our grid, and the built environment.

Public health and healthcare

The public health and healthcare breakout group, led by Julie Robinson and Dr. Mona Arora, focused on strategies to enhance public health and safety in the face of extreme heat, emphasizing the need to focus efforts on vulnerable populations. Ms. Robinson is the Program Officer at the Office of Climate and Environmental Health for Pima County Health Department, and Dr. Arora, a member of the SWEHSC, leads the ADHS-CDC COVID Disparities Initiative at the Arizona Center for Rural Health. Together, Ms. Robinson and Dr. Arora emphasized the importance of improving education and awareness efforts to increase heat resilience within arid environments. 


I. Lack of education and awareness: Many individuals, including healthcare workers and community members, may not be aware of the potential severity of heat-related illness and symptoms. Furthermore, people who are not acclimated to the intense heat of summer may face more severe symptoms. 

II. Limited resources: Access to cooling and hydration centers and other heat relief resources may be inadequate, particularly for underserved communities. 

III. Insufficient communication and collaboration: Communication between healthcare providers, local agencies, and the community should be improved to enhance efficiency and effectiveness in heat response efforts. 

Next steps

I. Promote awareness: Work to increase education and awareness efforts regarding heat-related illnesses, as well as available resources for prevention and treatment. 

II. Expand resources: Increase funding and the accessibility of cooling and hydration centers and other heat relief resources, particularly in underserved areas. 

III. Build communication and collaboration: Improve communication efficiency between healthcare providers, local organizations, and community members to enhance responses in heat resilience efforts.

Community and neighborhood level action

Fatima Luna, the Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Tucson, led the community and neighborhood level action breakout group, focusing on strategies to encourage community involvement and individual efforts to prevent heat-related illness and injury. Discussions centered around improving access to sustainable practices and obtaining support from local governments. 


I. Limited access to sustainable practices: Some communities may lack access to sustainable practices such as solar power and public transportation which may help mitigate the effects of extreme heat. 

II. Lack of awareness: Individuals within a community may not know about sustainable lifestyle opportunities, such as rainwater harvesting and how to reduce energy use, or about available resources for coping with extreme heat. 

Next steps

I. Support sustainable practices: Improve access to and affordability of sustainable practices such as solar power and public transportation at the community level. This includes installing and improving green infrastructure within communities. 

II. Promote awareness: Implement and support educational programs to inform community members about sustainable lifestyle changes and available local resources for heat resilience. 

Workforce and heat protection

Nicole Gillett, the Urban Forestry Program Manager for the City of Tucson, led the workforce and heat protection breakout group. The discussion focused on essential strategies to prevent heat-related illness and injury in the workplace, particularly for outdoor workers.


I. Inadequate workplace policies: Many workers have encountered heat-related challenges at work, especially during summer heat waves. It can be very difficult to stay cool, particularly if a job requires personal protective equipment or long hours outside. 

II. Lack of heat safety education: Workers may not know about the signs and symptoms of heat-related illness, which include:

  • Lack of sweat (indicating severe dehydration)
  • Hot and dry skin
  • Mental confusion, nausea, or dizziness
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Throbbing headache, shallow breathing, and muscle pain

It is important to make sure workers are aware of these signs and symptoms and that they know how to take care of themselves or others who may be experiencing heat-related illness. 

Next steps

I. Enhance workplace policies: Develop and enforce policies to ensure adequate heat protection measures for workers, such as shaded rest areas, cooling stations, and hydration stations. 

II. Heat safety education programs: Provide comprehensive heat education and training programs for workers, particularly those who are likely to work outside, to increase awareness of heat-related illness and prevention measures. 

Energy and our grid

Irene Ortega, the Office Specialist at Tohono O’odham Nation, and Stephen Addison, an Environmental Scientist for the City of Tucson, led the energy and our grid breakout group. Primary topics of discussion involved challenges and opportunities in addressing energy needs and grid concerns.


I. Food insecurity: Extreme heat events may worsen food insecurity due to power outages affecting food storage and distribution. 

II. Cooling center inaccessibility: Some communities may lack access or transportation to cooling centers during heatwaves, increasing the risk of heat-related health issues. 

Next steps

I. Enhance cross sector collaboration: Fostering collaboration between energy providers, local organizations, and community groups will ensure equitable access when developing response plans for power grid failures. 

II. Implement microgrids: Establish microgrids to decentralize energy sources and reduce reliance on the main power grid during extreme heat events. 

III. Expand energy audit programs: Increase efforts to assess and improve energy efficiency in public and residential buildings, with a focus on reducing energy consumption for cooling and air conditioning purposes. 

Built environment

Dr. Ladd Keith, a member of the SWEHSC and an assistant professor in the School of Landscape Architecture and Planning, and Leslie Ethen, the Director of the Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development for the City of Tucson, led the built environment breakout group. Discussions focused on strategies to mitigate the urban heat island effect and promote heat-resilient building designs, emphasizing the importance of funding and education to address green infrastructure for improved heat resilience within the City of Tucson.


I. Limited funding: Implementing heat-resilient building designs and green infrastructure may be impeded by limited funding. 

II. Lack of awareness: Some communities may lack awareness of available programs and resources for implementing heat-resilient building designs and cooling solutions. 

Next steps

I. Prioritize funding: Advocate for increased funding for initiatives aimed at reducing the urban heat island effect and promoting heat-resilient building designs. 

II. Raise awareness: Implement public awareness campaigns to inform communities about the benefits and availability of heat resilience programs, building designs and green infrastructure, and natural cooling solutions. 

Overall, the 2024 Heat Planning Summit provided a platform for stakeholders to share insights, exchange ideas, and collaborate on strategies to build heat resilience and promote community health and safety in the face of extreme heat events. The discussions underscored the importance of collaboration, planning, access, and affordability of resources in addressing the challenges posed by extreme heat. Moving forward, it is important to commit to implementing strategies and recommendations outlines in this Summit and to work together towards creating a more resilient future for residents of hot arid deserts.