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World's First Chief Heat Officer Has Tips for Managing Risks of Extreme Heat

Before Jane Gilbert took on the job for Miami-Dade County, no city in the world had a chief heat officer. What can others learn from the work she’s doing?

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Tree planting in a Miami-Dade County park that is inside an urban heat island.
(Miami-Dade County)
Note: This is a companion piece to the feature story Too Damn Hot — And Getting Hotter: Dealing With Extreme Heat

In 2021, Jane Gilbert was named the world’s first chief heat officer for Miami-Dade County, a position she holds in its Office of Resilience. The position was created by Mayor Daniella Levine Cava in partnership with the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. (Cava has also named a separate chief bay officer to help lead the work of preserving Biscayne Bay.)

Prior to her appointment, Gilbert served the county for several years as chief resilience officer. Cava is a Democrat and the first woman mayor of the county, one of the largest in America. She’s committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, envisioning a green economy driven by innovation.

In its model of an “extreme heat belt” that could impact 100 million Americans by mid-century, the First Street Foundation found that Miami would be the most affected city in America by at least one metric. By 2053, they said, its seven hottest days — currently at 103 degrees Fahrenheit — would increase to 34 days at that temperature, almost twice the average increase in "hottest days" in the rest of the country.

Phoenix and Los Angeles are the only U.S. cities to have dedicated chief heat officers. However governments might organize things, it’s evident that local governments in most states will need in-house capacity to manage and mitigate extreme heat events.

Gilbert and Miami-Dade County are ahead of the curve in this regard. In a conversation with Governing, she offered an overview of her work and some of the steps local governments can take to keep citizens safe.

Governing: More than half of heat-associated deaths in Maricopa County in Arizona (see companion story) last year were among the homeless population. Is it fair to say that the people at most risk from extreme heat events are those who are most at risk in other ways?

Jane Gilbert: It's certainly true that those who are most at risk are more socioeconomically vulnerable. One of the differences between Maricopa County and Miami-Dade County is that we don't have as large an unsheltered population as they do; it’s about one-seventh the size.

Our population certainly includes the unsheltered, but we also have a lot of outdoor workers. We have an agricultural industry, a large construction industry here. That’s a population at risk, as are those who can no longer afford to keep their home cool or to replace a broken wall unit. There are no minimum cooling standards for rental apartments.

Governing: How do you find the people who need your help the most?

Jane Gilbert: We have chronic high heat, so we need to reach out and make sure people are aware of the risk for the time period between May and end of October.

We have a heat season campaign where we target the ZIP codes that are most at risk. We did a vulnerability analysis and found the ZIP codes that have the most emergency department visits and hospitalizations.

The disparity is quite large. Some ZIP codes can have over four times the number of emergency department visits and hospitalizations as other ZIP codes. Those are correlated with high land surface temperatures, high poverty rates, high percentage of outdoor workers and high percentage of families with children. Our marketing campaign targets those ZIP codes, those demographics.

Governing: What kind of marketing do you use?

Jane Gilbert: Outdoor media — bus shelters and billboards — and radio in English, Spanish and Haitian. We place posters in all our libraries, parks and social service outreach points.
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Jane Gilbert: "Some zip codes can have over four times the number of emergency department visits and hospitalizations as other zip codes. Those are correlated with high land surface temperatures, high poverty rates, high percentage of outdoor workers and high percentage of families with children. Our marketing campaign targets those zip codes, those demographics."
(Miami-Dade County)

We also distribute posters to our municipal partners, our school-based partners, and community partners, cards and stickers for kids, etc.

Governing: What do you do to provide heat relief?

Jane Gilbert: We train our disaster volunteers from at-risk communities to check on neighbors at times of disaster and provide enhanced training on extreme heat. They do outreach in those areas and help identify the people who need to be trained in these areas.

We provide cooling centers in libraries and park facilities and encourage people who don't have access to cooling at home or at a friend's or neighbor's house to get them to cool off during times of heat advisories. We've partnered with the medical community, with Baptist Health and Florida Clinicians for Climate Action, on training health-care practitioners to identify patients that may be having chronic exposure to extreme heat and getting them access to resources they might need.

Governing: What about outdoor workers — are you able to require employers to provide such things as water breaks?

Jane Gilbert: That’s an important question and a challenging one. Workplace safety is typically regulated at the federal-level OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], and OSHA does not have standard requirements around heat prevention.

Employers are liable if they are found to be negligent about heat prevention, but there is no standard required protocol. We don't have a state OSHA office. There are a few states — California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado — that have outdoor heat protection laws.

We've tried at the state level the last three years to advocate for heat protection guidelines, and that has not been voted out of committee to go to a vote by the full Legislature. We are working with the commission to look at what we can do at a local level in terms of some sort of code, but we're not set up to regulate labor.

What we are doing is partnering with OSHA and the University of South Florida on a three-hour training for employers later this month. We've been doing outreach to our employer community about the importance of having good extreme heat protocols in place, and it’s already sold out.

Governing: Is it part of your role as chief heat officer to be involved in programs or policies to address causes of rising temperatures?

Jane Gilbert: I work within the Office of Resilience. The county has a carbon climate action strategy, and my actions were thought through as an integrated part of that climate action strategy. The Office of Resilience has a team working on flood risk mitigation and sea level rise, a team on carbon mitigation, a team on our Biscayne Bay water quality health and a team on zero waste in addition to my work on extreme heat.

The main areas where we overlap are a focus on energy-efficiency retrofits for our low-income population and our work on a very aggressive plan to get to a 30 percent tree canopy, and to increase investments in that and in the retrofits.
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A splash pad in a Miami-Dade County park helps children find relief from the heat.
(Miami-Dade County)
Governing: It's increasingly likely that an extreme heat event could take place just about anywhere. What can a community do to be better prepared to respond?

Jane Gilbert: The first thing is to understand the nature of your risk. If you have had past heat events, you could look at emergency department and hospitalization visits. Outdoor workers are one of the most vulnerable populations, as are those who do not have access to cooling at home.

Any unsheltered population is going to be more at risk not just because they're unsheltered but because there is a high percentage of that population that may also suffer from mental illness or drug addiction. These can make you both more sensitive to heat and less aware when you're getting heat exposure.

Governing: Do you expect more cities to decide they need someone acting as chief heat officer, even it’s not their only job?

Jane Gilbert: Yes. There needs to be increased focus both on how to respond when we're under extreme heat conditions and to mitigate urban heat.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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