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FEMA urged to add extreme heat, wildfire smoke to list of disasters

21 states under excessive heat warnings
21 states under excessive heat warnings, millions to see temperatures above 90 degrees 03:22

A coalition of organizations is calling on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to add extreme heat and wildfire smoke to its list of scenarios worthy of being labeled a major disaster.

Dozens of environmental, health and labor groups on Monday filed a petition with FEMA in a bid to unleash FEMA funds that historically have been used to respond to disasters such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes that damage infrastructure. 

The groups including AFL-CIO, Friends of the Earth and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments argue that the step would help areas be prepared for heat waves and wildfire smoke by helping finance cooling centers or air filtration systems in schools. 

As things stand, states and local communities have been largely on their own in dealing with extreme heat, which kills more Americans each year than hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined, according to the National Weather Service.

The death certificates of more than 2,300 people who died in the U.S. last year mention the effects of excessive heat. That's the highest number in 45 years of recordkeeping, according to an Associated Press analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. 

Labor groups and the White House have advocated that the Labor Department publish a draft heat regulation, as millions of people work outside or without air conditioning. Major businesses and industry groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are against new rules. 

How do crews who work outside stay cool? 02:16

The impact of extreme heat on workers is particularly acute in states like Texas, according to one labor group behind the petition.  

"The impact of the climate crisis coupled with the fact that Texas is the most dangerous state to work in makes the detrimental impact of heat and wildfire smoke an increasing threat for all Texans," Margarita Del Cid, Workers Defense Dallas member-leader, said in a statement. "One construction worker dies every three days in Texas and a huge factor in these deaths is heat, whether it's heat stroke or hyperthermia or in some cases, prolonged illness."

The 1988 Stafford Act permits the federal government to declare a disaster or emergency, but does not specifically include extreme heat on a list of 16 causes. FEMA can respond to requests for federal assistance when states and localities need the additional help, and there's nothing specific in the Stafford Act that precludes a declaration for extreme heat, according to the agency.  

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