EMS HeatTracker: Enhancing Public Health Response to Heat-Related Illnesses

Heat Stroke© Africa Images / Canva

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE), in partnership with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), recently launched a first-of-its-kind online information portal called the Heat-Related Illness EMS Activation Surveillance Dashboard (“EMS HeatTracker”), which maps emergency medical services responses to heat-related illness across the country. The tracker will help public health officials ensure that outreach and medical aid reach the people who need it most and help decision-makers prioritize community resilience investments.

This tool is being published as the climate crisis makes heat waves more extreme and more frequent around the country. It is the latest step by the Biden-Harris Administration to provide communities with the support and resources they need to stay safe from the worsening effects of extreme heat.

“Heat is no longer a silent killer. From coast-to-coast, communities are battling to keep people cool, safe and alive due to the growing impacts of the climate crisis,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra. “President Biden is committed to providing communities with the resources they need to stay safe. The EMS HeatTracker is a powerful tool from the Biden-Harris Administration that brings actionable information to prioritize outreach and interventions, helping prevent heat-related illnesses and death and build resilience across the nation.”

The EMS HeatTracker will be used to help state, regional, and local government officials, such as city and regional planners, determine where to prioritize heat mitigation strategies, like street trees, parks, and cool roofs. It will also be used to help mayors and public health officials prioritize interventions like cooling centers and outreach to at-risk populations during periods of extreme heat.

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“Heat is the most lethal of all types of extreme weather and heat exposure is worsening with increasing global warming,” said Acting Director of OCCHE, Dr. John Balbus. “But existing data on heat-related deaths don’t shed light on where people actually fall ill.  This new dashboard makes it possible to see where the needs are greatest, plan for the future, and save lives.”

In addition to showing state and county-level heat-related EMS activations, the dashboard breaks down patient characteristics by age, race, gender, and urbanicity (e.g., urban, suburban, rural, and frontier). These data underscore which populations experience heat-related health risks most severely.

“Extreme heat linked to climate change threatens our health and wellbeing, but it does not impact everyone equally. These threats are faced most acutely by communities of color, our youngest and oldest community members, and low-income households across the country. These data will help us prioritize heat mitigation strategies, outreach initiatives, and funding for energy assistance to alleviate heat stress and prevent illness in communities at greatest risk,” said Assistant Secretary for Health of Health and Human Services, Adm. Rachel Levine.

“The effects of climate change and extreme heat on our daily lives are undeniable,” said Acting Administrator of NHTSA, Ann Carlson. “This dashboard is a first step to gather critical data on heat-related illness and save lives. So, I’m thrilled that in collaboration with state EMS officials and clinicians, NHTSA can share millions of records and partner with HHS to identify the populations most at risk for heat-related illness.”

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The EMS HeatTracker, which will also be available through the heat.gov portal, is part of ongoing collaborations across the Administration through the National Integrated Heat Health Information System and the Interagency Working Group on Extreme Heat. The dashboard will be updated weekly to show data on a rolling basis.

Technical Background on Data Collection

The EMS HeatTracker highlights EMS activations resulting from 911 calls for heat-related illness and injury. The dashboard includes clinical care and patient characteristics captured within the National EMS Information System (NEMSIS) maintained by NHTSA. The NEMSIS data consist of electronic patient care records completed by nearly 95 percent of all EMS agencies nationwide. On average, the data submitted to the national NEMSIS database are 99 percent complete within two weeks.

The EMS HeatTracker highlights jurisdictions (including all 50 U.S. States, Puerto Rico, and D.C.) and counties with the highest rates of heat-related EMS activations. The EMS HeatTracker also provides national-level information on the number of heat-related EMS activations and the number of heat-related deaths among patients who were alive when EMS officials arrived on the scene. It does not include information for patient fatalities that occurred prior to EMS arrival on scene or fatalities with no EMS response, making it an underestimate of the number of heat-related deaths in the U.S.

The EMS HeatTracker allows for county- and jurisdiction-level comparisons to national averages in three categories in the prior rolling 30 and 14-day periods:

  • population rate of heat-related EMS activations within a community;
  • average EMS time in transit to reach a patient; and
  • the percent of patients who are transported to a medical facility for further treatment.
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The information displayed on the EMS HeatTracker is updated every Monday morning with a two-week lag behind real-time. The dashboard represents the first iteration of a tool that will continue to evolve over the coming year as more data become available.

OCCHE, overseen by HHS Assistant Secretary for Health ADM Rachel Levine, was established by executive order to address the health impacts of climate change on the American people. OCCHE’s priorities include identifying communities with disproportionate exposures to climate hazards and addressing health disparities exacerbated by climate impacts.

To view the EMS HeatTracker, click HERE.

To learn more about OCCHE, see extreme heat forecasts, and read about actions you can take to protect yourself, click HERE.

To learn about what the federal government is doing on heat and health, click HERE.

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