Some of the highest temperatures in the whole nation are registered in California’s deserts, Central Valley and Inland Empire, where scorchers are common into the autumn.
Sweating municipalities have launched cooling center plans to give relief to residents.
When the mercury hits 95 in San Jose, the city announces the opening of cooling centers with air conditioning and the media gets the word out.
When the alert goes out, the city asks residents to “please check on your elderly neighbors and neighbors who have been ill, make sure they put their air conditioning on or help them,” said Mona Favorite-Hill, communications manager for parks, recreation and neighborhood services for city of San Jose.
“This is about more than just staying cool during the summer months,” said Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin. “It’s about providing a critical safety net for some of our most vulnerable residents.”
Many residents who don’t bother to turn on expensive air conditioning or don’t have it utilize the cooling centers, which are usually community centers that are already staffed. But cities and counties, on the heating alert days, pay extra and schedule extra staff to keep the cooling centers open until 8 p.m.
“We get people who wander in and stay awhile,” said Favorite-Hill. “Some people come in and just sit.”
For the city, there’s an added safety benefit.
The community centers that become cooling centers also are used as centers designated for civic emergencies to qualify for federal safety regulations. It’s helpful to have more neighborhood people aware of the community centers, and that happens through San Jose’s cooling center program, said Favorite-Hill.
Cooling centers tend to bring in senior citizens and families with young children, said Heather Heinks, spokeswoman for the city of Fresno. This year, Fresno has added the enticement of free swimming from 1 to 5 p.m. at city pools when a cooling alert goes out with a predicted temperature of 105 or more. (The cooling centers also open when the mercury hits 105, even if it wasn’t predicted to be that high.)
“The pools are packed pretty much either way,” said Heincks. “The families come out in force when it gets hot.”
Fresno also offers free bus service on heat alert days so residents can get to the cooling centers.
Last year, seven Fresno centers were opened seven or eight times, and 3,161 people took advantage.
Fresno defrays the cost with the help of a $15,000 grant from PG&E and its pilot project for cooling centers. So does Kern County, which covers about half the cost of its cooling center program. The county has 16 centers it operates, plus another half-dozen in which the county cooperates with city and special district rec programs, said Bob Lerude, director of the Kern County Parks and Recreation Department. It costs $25,000 to $35,000 per year to run the program, he said.
Parks and Rec collaborates with Kern County’s Aging and Adult Services on the program. When the temperature triggers a heat alert, a staffer goes through a list and calls residents to make sure they’re OK, said Lerude.
The county provides water and snacks, but also urges residents to bring along water when they come to a cooling center.
Kern County started the program four years ago, and has added a new center or two each year to hit more spots on the map of the sprawling county. In the first year, a survey of residents found that transportation was an issue, so the county added bus vouchers, Lerude said.
Click here for an example of how Kern County lists its cooling centers.
Also, the county used to open the centers at 8 a.m. and then realized people fearing the heat don’t come out that early. The alert now means a cooling center is open from 1 to 8 p.m.
Kern County encompasses several microclimates. The cooling center openings are triggered by 108-degree readings in desert areas, 95 degrees in Frazier Park and Tehachapi in the high desert (where most people don’t have air conditioning, Lerude noted), and 105 degrees in the San Joaquin and Kern river valleys. The centers include community centers, senior centers, veterans buildings and the California City police station.
Lance Howland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org