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Heat-related death in Phoenix raises concern over training of city employees

The case raises the question of whether the city employees should have done more to inquire about his well-being.

PHOENIX — After a 2021 heat-related death, the City of Phoenix defends the training of its employees.

A county medical examiner report shows last July Phoenix city employees at Steele Indian School park observed a man “rolling around” and “appeared to be asleep” on the concrete between 5:30 and 6:00 pm. 

The outdoor temperature at the time was around 105 degrees. The employees later told investigators “the man did not appear to be in distress.” 

An hour after the employees passed him, another citizen walking by also noticed the man and called 911. Within minutes of paramedics showing up, the man was pronounced dead. 

The preliminary cause of death was heat-related, according to the report.

The man was unidentified and described as a transient. According to the report, his “left foot appeared bloody and burned from the sidewalk.” 

A pair of pants were nearby. “It appeared he had taken them off in an effort to cool off,” the report states.

Heat activist Stacey Champion, who tracks heat-related deaths in Phoenix, says the case raises the question of whether the city employees should have done more to inquire about his well-being.

“It is vital in my opinion that the city of Phoenix train every single one of their employees on what heat illness looks like, and heatstroke. How do you tend to people? When do you call 911? All of those things,” Champion said.

The city tells 12 News the workers who observed the man were part-time park employees who worked indoors and outdoors. In an apparent defense of the employees’ actions, City of Phoenix Director of Communications Dan Wilson noted that, according to the report, the employees did not observe signs of distress.

“Parks employees are trained to provide assistance to park users, including calling for medical or public safety assistance when an individual is in distress,” Wilson said.

The case raises the larger question of what someone should do if they observe an unsheltered individual lying on the ground or sleeping when temperatures are excessively hot.

Phoenix Fire Captain Rob McDade did not comment on this case in particular but says every scenario is different. 

In general, if a citizen encounters someone exposed to the sun on an excessively hot day who appears to be sleeping or lying down, it’s recommended to check on them, McDade said. If the citizen isn’t comfortable making contact with the person directly, call 911.

“Welfare calls are one of the most common calls Phoenix firefighters respond to. We will be there if we are called,” he added.

McDade expects the city to have a busy summer with a surging population of homeless Arizonans.

According to the CDC, temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit can cause heat cramps, exhaustion, heat stroke and fainting. Risk factors include individuals who use substances, who are older than 65 and who are overweight.

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