‘Hearing somebody’s voice and feeling safe’: How Philly’s ‘heatline’ offers help during heat waves

Callers to the heatline tend to seek tips on staying safe, ask about free air conditioners, or report symptoms of heat-related illness, its director said.

A woman uses an umbrella for protection from the sun as she walks along with a child

File photo: A woman uses an umbrella for protection from the sun in the Juniata Park section of Philadelphia during a heat wave on July 20, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

If you’re struggling to stay cool during the next heat wave, call the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s “heatline,” and a nurse may walk you through how to stay safe.

“[We] hear a lot of, ‘Oh, I can’t breathe,’ or ‘I’m very thirsty,’ or ‘I feel like I’m lightheaded,’” said Yvette Minter, director of nursing for the city’s Ambulatory Health Services. “We’ll stay on the phone as long as they need to get comfortable.”

The heatline activates when the city declares a heat health emergency. It’s an extension of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s regular senior helpline, and it’s open to callers of all ages.

The purpose is to give callers tips for staying cool in their homes, connect callers with their nearest city-run cooling centers, and get help for callers experiencing heat-related medical emergencies.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Our heatline is citywide and it’s actually for everybody,” said Nolan Lawrence, senior director of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s helpline. “Because the heat can attack everybody of any age.”

Reach the Philadelphia heatline during heat health emergencies by calling (215) 765-9040

Help during heat-related health emergencies

The heatline receives dozens to hundreds of calls in a typical summer, according to data provided by the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. A small portion of these calls are referred to city health centers or on-call public health nurses, who will refer a caller to 911, dispatch a mobile environmental health team to a caller’s home, or give basic medical advice.

First, heatline staff screen callers for signs of confusion, by asking basic questions such as a caller’s name and location, and other symptoms of heat-related illness before referring them to the public health nurses.

“Your hands are cramping, you’re feeling confused, your body temperature’s high,” Lawrence said. “We’ve actually identified some people suffering from severe confusion and dehydration because they were able to tell us their first name, not their last name. One lady was actually outside, [and] she really didn’t know where she was even though it was her familiar neighborhood.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

If a caller is transferred to a public health nurse, the nurse will ask about any medications a caller takes and whether they took them that day, Minter said. The nurse will ask a caller to measure their blood sugar level if they have access to a monitor.

People most at risk for heat-related illness include young children, elders, and people who are ill or take certain medications, according to the CDC.

“Mainly diabetic patients, hypertension patients, asthmatic patients,” Minter said. “A lot of them can become dehydrated fast. A lot of them can have breathing issues fast.”

Public health nurses will encourage callers to drink water, take medications, or put a cold, wet rag on their foreheads.

“A lot of them can’t get a hold of their physicians and their doctors right away,” Minter said. “Having … a nurse to be able to guide them through some of the clinical components that would help them at that particular time …  I think it’s more of just hearing somebody’s voice and feeling safe.”

A nurse that’s dispatched to a home will do a further health assessment, keep a person stable, and help a person get to a hospital if needed.

During last month’s heat health emergency, which lasted three days, the heatline received 81 calls. Of those, three people were referred to nurses.

Tips for staying cool at home or finding a cooling center

In cases that are not yet medical emergencies, heatline staff provide tips on staying safe in a hot home.

“A lot of our seniors are homebound … so they’re trying to figure out the best way to improve their situation,” Lawrence said.

Heatline staff advise callers to get to the lowest level of their home, such as the basement, since heat rises. If a caller has no air conditioning, heatline staff recommend opening windows for air flow.

“People might think it’s counterintuitive because it’s hot outside, but a lot of these homes are made of bricks, which actually can condense heat like a brick oven,” Lawrence said.

Heatline staff recommend wearing loose-fitting clothing, taking multiple cold showers a day if needed, and drinking lots of fluids that are low in sugar and caffeine.

“We recommend staying over-hydrated,” Lawrence said.

Some callers may have an air conditioning unit at home, but be unsure how to turn it on, Minter said. Public health workers dispatched to a home can help.

Heatline staff also help callers find the cooling centers closest to their homes. During last month’s heat health emergency, the city set up cooling centers at 32 libraries and rec centers with extended hours.

“If [callers] want to speak to somebody at the actual location … we could transfer them to that particular library or senior center or rec center,” Lawrence said.

The Philadelphia Corporation for Aging does not provide transportation to cooling centers, but will give callers information about transit routes and SEPTA’s CCT. Staff and public health nurses will even help callers contact neighbors or relatives that may be able to offer a ride.

“Most times they’ll have someone’s phone number and they will provide it to us, and we can call and say, ‘Hey, Mr. So-and-so is in some need of help. Can you assist in this manner?’” Minter said.

Questions about free air conditioners and fans

Heatline callers frequently ask whether the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging is giving out free fans or air conditioners, Lawrence said.

“That’s usually, most times, a no,” he said.

Heatline staff will tell callers about the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s emergency fund, which can provide money for air conditioners to eligible older adults who are referred by social service agencies or clergy. Staff will also refer callers to any organization that happens to be doing giveaways at a given time.

“We’ll spread the word as much as we can,” Lawrence said.  “It’s very much based on any independent community groups or some sort of corporate donation.”

Pennsylvanians who received Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program grants during the past year are eligible to receive two free air conditioning units or fans this summer. A small mutual aid group is raising funds to buy air conditioners for families that need them. But overall, there are few resources for free air conditioners. 

Subscribe to PlanPhilly

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal