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How Austria plans to protect the public during heatwaves this summer

Amanda Previdelli
Amanda Previdelli - [email protected]
How Austria plans to protect the public during heatwaves this summer
A tourist holds an umbrella to protect hersel from the sun during a hot sunny day in Vienna on July 2, 2012. (Photo by ALEXANDER KLEIN / AFP)

With the first heatwave of the year set to hit Austria, the government has presented its "National Heat Protection Plan". But what does it involve?

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Just as people in Austria start bracing for the first heat wave of the year, with temperatures expected to reach 35C on Friday, the government has presented its "National Heat Protection Plan".  

The plan aims to raise awareness about the impact of extreme heat on individuals and systems while guiding state authorities and healthcare facilities to better prepare for and respond to heat events, according to a presentation by Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens).

According to Rauch, Europe is warming up faster than other continents due to the impact of the human-caused climate crisis. 

The minister said in a press conference that heat is already a burden for healthy people. However, it can become a real danger, especially for vulnerable groups such as babies, small children, the elderly, and sick people. Awareness of this should be raised. 

READ ALSO: How to stay cool in Austria as the heatwave hits

The revised heat protection plan aims to raise awareness and make the healthcare system more resilient to future heat events. The plan sets out steps to be taken at the federal level in cooperation with the federal states and GeoSphere Austria, the country's meteorological institute, in the event of extremely high temperatures.

What are the federal recommendations?

The plan recommends measures to the federal states and social and health institutions depending on the warning level and shows examples of best practices, such as setting up a network of "heat buddies."

For example, people who live in retirement homes and care facilities or are cared for by mobile services should be better looked after. 

"Heat protection requires more than just structural and technical measures. It is also a social task. It requires a joint effort. It is crucial to sensitise those responsible so that they can prepare measures for their institutions. That is the goal and the great benefit of this National Heat Protection Plan," said Andrea Schmidt, Head of the Climate and Health Competence Centre at Gesundheit Österreich.

Exchange with state, social, and healthcare facilities will also be intensified. An information and training programme for the facilities' health officers and an annual congress are planned. The plan also calls for heat to be given more significant consideration in urban development and spatial planning.

"We must use every opportunity to inform the population about correct behaviour and provide good care for people at increased risk during heatwaves," said Health Minister Johannes Rauch.

READ ALSO: How is Vienna planning to deal with heatwaves?

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The minister said short-, medium—and long-term measures are needed to protect particularly vulnerable groups from heat stress. These include structural measures in public spaces, such as shading and installing drinking water dispensers. 

In the short term, local initiatives such as Caritas climate oases, Red Cross cooling centres, and other neighbourhood support measures can improve the situation of older or sick people. 

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Responsibilities for the states

The federal states are responsible for implementing measures, each of which has its own heat protection plans that consider regional characteristics. The federal government coordinates the exchange between the states and experts. It is responsible for measures in the event of extreme heat from a perceived temperature of 40C and in the event of long-lasting, intense heatwaves, the national plan shows.

READ ALSO: Austrian heatwave: Six tips to get a better night’s sleep

The main aim is to convene the state crisis and disaster management team to coordinate the emergency measures of all parties involved (such as emergency organisations and federal, state, and local authorities). According to Rauch, the Ministry of Health also wants to intensify the provision of information to the population and place adverts on correct behaviour during heatwaves.

"Heat is also a social issue if people cannot afford air conditioning or a visit to the swimming pool", said Rauch. He added: "We therefore also want to help create more places that offer free cooling, such as the 27 "Climate Oases" in Vienna and Lower Austria and the Red Cross "Cooling Centres.""

Monitoring is also essential, as the press conference emphasised. Heat-related mortality is difficult to record, as heat rarely causes direct deaths but affects pre-existing conditions.

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The AGES heat mortality monitoring programme calculates the correlation between temperatures and excess mortality. The analyses showed that in recent years, there has been a significant excess mortality of up to 500 people per year. Hospitalisations also increased by up to a quarter in extremely hot summers.

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