Emergency Preparedness, Heating and Cooling, Safety

How to Turn Facilities into Public Cooling Centers During Extreme Heat

As temperatures and humidity increase in many sections of the United States, we are all looking for relief. Facility managers should understand the importance of making their facilities into cooling centers and consider the best ways they can help keep the public safe.

What Is a Cooling Center?

According to the CDC, cooling centers are typically air-conditioned facilities open to the public to provide safety during extreme heat. Cooling centers can also include outdoor locations. Most of the time, they provide restrooms or outdoor portable toilets.

Government-owned building cooling centers can include:

  • Libraries
  • Schools
  • Senior centers
  • Recreation centers
  • Indoor community pools
  • Community centers
  • Town halls
  • Police department facilities
  • Fire departments facilities

Other inside cooling centers can include:

  • Religious centers
  • Coffee shops
  • Shopping malls
  • Movie theaters

Outside cooling centers include:

  • Spray parks
  • Outdoor community pools
  • Public parks

Some people may find temporary cooling centers in more unordinary places. For example, the Amazon Meeting Center in Downtown Seattle served as an official cooling center in 2021 with the space to accommodate up to 1,000 members of the public. Similarly, the Phoenix Convention Center was used as a cooling center by over 27,000 residents in 2020.

Facilities professionals should work with executives to consider if they have extra unused office space, reception areas, break rooms, or conference rooms that could be opened to the public during heat waves.

There are 7 ways to safely develop your facility into a cooling center:

1. Protect Against COVID

The California Department of Public Health recommends that staff screen visitors and volunteers for symptoms prior to entering. This is especially important in areas with high transmissibility of COVID-19. Those who exhibit symptoms should be placed in an alternative location if it’s possible. Staff should be encouraged to get vaccinated and boosted. Additionally, staff should have face masks available for those entering. Consider recommending staff and visitors wear face masks based on current local COVID protocols. They should follow additional cooling center guidance as provided by the CDC.

2. Ventilation

CDC recommends that facilities managers look over their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system to ensure acceptable air quality based on the number of occupants expected. Restroom exhaust fans should be functional and operational at maximum speed. Be sure to increase air filtration as high as possible without reducing design airflow.

3. Cleaning

Facilities professionals should ensure that restrooms are properly maintained. This includes handwashing supplies such as soap and hand-drying materials. Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol should be placed near the entrances of facilities and in common areas. Areas should be properly cleaned and sanitized. For more information, please read “Back to Basics: Cleaning, Disinfecting, or Sanitizing? What’s Right for Your Facility” on Facilities Management Advisor.

4. Food and Beverages

Occupants should have access to food and beverages. Many governmental cooling centers give out bottles of water and snacks to occupants. Businesses and outdoor cooling center locations should have water fountains or water bottle refill machines so that occupants can get water for free. Food and beverages are often for sale at businesses that people utilize as cooling centers.

5. Electrical Plugs

Cooling centers should have easy access to electrical outlets to allow occupants to charge their electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, and ear pods. All businesses with common areas, like malls and movie theaters, should have extra electrical outlets so that multiple occupants can charge devices simultaneously. Governmental facilities should ensure their facilities have power strips.

6. Allow Pets

Consider accommodating pets. If you do, make sure you have clean water and water bowls available and crates for dogs. During cooler periods of the day, allow pets the use of grassy or dirt areas outside the building where the ground is cooler than asphalt and pavements. If your facility cannot accommodate them, refer occupants with pets to pet-friendly cooling centers. Inform them that pets cannot be left in vehicles since vehicles can get a lot hotter than the air temperature. All cooling centers must allow service animals. Read more about this at “The Facts on Accommodating Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals at Your Facility” on Facilities Management Advisor.

7. Entertainment

Facilities hosting cooling centers should consider having games or activities for people to do while they pass the time. Many governmental cooling centers, including libraries, have books, magazines, puzzles, board games, and kid-friendly movies for families.

Why?

Facilities professionals and management should help people stay cool in order to reduce the chances of heat-related illnesses. According to the CDC, heat-related illnesses can include heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.

Vulnerable members of the public especially impacted by high heat include:

  • Outside workers
  • Older adults
  • Pregnant, newborns, and children
  • Homeless people
  • People with chronic medical conditions
  • Low-income populations without access to air conditioning at home

Advisories

Facilities professionals should prepare for having cooling centers fully operational when they will be used the most. They can estimate this usage based on the issuance of advisories, outlooks, watches, and warnings by the National Weather Service (NWS). While extremely dangerous heat criteria can vary as states like Florida are much more prepared for heat than states like Alaska, typically dangerous heat index includes temperatures of 100°F or higher and nighttime air temperatures 75°F or higher for at least 2 days. The heat index is determined based on temperature and relative humidity.

NWS alerts include:

  1. Excessive Heat Outlook – Potential for an excessive heat event in the next 3 to 7 days. Provides considerable lead time to prepare.
  2. Excessive Heat Watch – Conditions are favorable for an excessive heat event in the next 24 to 72 hours. Make preparations, but occurrence and timing are unknown.
  3. Heat Advisory – Issued within 12 hours of extremely dangerous heat. Start preparing.
  4. Excessive Heat Warning – Issued within 12 hours of extremely dangerous heat conditions. Take precautions immediately.

Facilities management professionals should work with executives in making cooling centers that are safe and fun for occupants. Promoting these cooling centers online could generate positive public relations for the companies, businesses, and organizations hosting them.