A woman’s heat death in Arizona after her power was cut sparked change, but advocates want more

Akash Arjun
Akash Arjun

Global Courant

PHOENIX (AP) — Stephanie Pullman died on a blistering day in Arizona after her electricity was cut off due to a $51 debt.

Five years later, the 72-year-old’s story remains at the heart of efforts to prevent others in Arizona from losing their power, leaving them without a home. life-saving air conditioning at temperatures that have surpassed 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) on any day this month.

“Stephanie Pullman was the face of the battle that helped frame the disconnect rules for Arizona’s large, regulated utilities,” said Stacey Champion, an advocate pushing for new regulations. “But we need more.”

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Arizona Public Service, known as APS, shut down Pullman’s power in September 2018 at a time when outside temperatures in its retirement community west of Phoenix reached 107 degrees Fahrenheit (41.6 degrees Celsius). Just days earlier, a $125 payment had been made against Pullman’s $176 overdue bill.

Her body was found in her home during a subsequent health check.

The the medical examiner’s office said Pullman died of ” exposure to ambient heat combined with post-lockdown cardiovascular disease.

Like many older residents of retirement communities in the Phoenix area, Pullman was a native Midwesterner, living alone after moving from Ohio, where her family resides.

Details about Pullman’s life are sketchy as her family is unable to discuss the matter under a private legal settlement with APS.

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“I can’t talk,” Pullman’s son, Tim Pullman, said when reached by phone in Ohio.

Champion said the family also suddenly stopped talking to her after the 2019 settlement.

APS did not comment on the settlement when contacted last week, but said in a statement that it “is there to help customers and we make sure they stay connected during the summer months.”

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Pullman’s death prompted Champion and others to demand new rules to avoid closures. The case raised awareness extreme heat hazardsand it led to change.

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“People are now more aware that low-income people can lose power in their homes at any time,” said Phoenix attorney Tom Ryan, a consumer advocate familiar with the Pullman case. “Couldn’t someone have saved her $51?”

In 2019, the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates most of the state’s utilities, issued a moratorium on summer shutdowns by APS and other power companies it oversees.

Commission last year permanently prohibited power cuts during the hottest months.

Electric companies can choose to cut the connection between June 1 and October 15, or cut them on days that are expected to be above 35 degrees Celsius or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). APS; Tucson Electric Power, which serves Arizona’s second largest city; and UniSource, which supplies power in Mohave and Santa Cruz counties, opted for the date-based option.

“There will be no closures for overdue residential bills until mid-October,” with late fees waived during that period, APS confirmed. “We are urging customers struggling with overdue accounts to contact us so that we can work with them to keep their accounts in good standing and prevent balances from accumulating further.”

APS is the principal subsidiary of publicly traded Pinnacle West Capital Corp. and has approximately 1.2 million customers. It gives one discount up to 25% on utility bills for eligible people, such as a family of three with a gross monthly income of less than $4,143, or a single person in a home with a gross monthly income of up to $2,430.

Known as a power and irrigation district rather than a utility, Arizona’s second-largest supplier of electricity, Salt River Project, or SRP, has approximately 1.1 million customers. It also supplies water to parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area. As a community-based, not-for-profit district, SRP is not overseen by the state commission, but is governed by a publicly elected board and council.

SRP says it is halting the shutdown during excessive heat warnings from the National Weather Service. But Champion noted that people have died on hot days without such warnings.

Amid the current heat wave, SRP announced Friday that it was ending all non-payment closures for residential and commercial customers through July, and that it would not disconnect for anyone not paying on its economy price plan for limited-income customers through August.

“SRP’s priority is to maintain reliable and affordable power for our customers, and we understand the importance of keeping customers in service during the hot Arizona summer days,” the utility said in response to a question. “We value the safety of our customers and have programs to help those in need.”

“We urge customers who are having difficulty paying their bill for any reason to contact us as soon as possible so that we can provide solutions to help them avoid a deteriorating financial situation,” the company said in a separate statement.

Governor Katie Hobbs sent a letter to Arizona’s power companies on Friday, demanding that during the current hot spell they put in writing their plans for shutting down the service, how they will handle potential grid outages and how they will respond in the event of an emergency outage.

Champion said she thinks the state legislation would help ensure stricter rules against power company shutdowns, but there is nothing for state legislatures to do.

Within the city limits of Phoenix, a ordinance requires landlords to ensure that their air conditioning units cool to 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius) or lower and that evaporative coolers reduce temperatures to 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius). Both types of refrigeration units must be maintained in good working order.

Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, reported Wednesday that there were from July 15 18 heat-related deaths confirmed this year going back to April 11. Another 69 deaths are under investigation.

Only four of the heat-related deaths confirmed in 2023 occurred indoors. Three involved non-functioning air conditioners and one that had access to electricity but was not turned on.

Maricopa County confirmed 425 heat deaths for 2022 during the region’s hottest summer on record, more than half of which will be in July. Eighty percent of deaths occurred outdoors.

Like Pullman, most of the 30 people who died indoors in the county last year were isolated and had mobility issues or medical issues. One was an 83-year-old woman with dementia who died in a home with an air conditioner that was not turned on. She lived alone after her husband was hospitalized.

There have long been utilities for homeowners and renters across the state, but advocates say efforts to protect people from closures on America’s most popular major metro increased after Pullman died.

Local governments and non-profit organizations often pay utility bills with no reimbursement required Arizona Department of Economic Security also helps with bills.

Efforts were also increased to help repair and replace faulty cooling systems.

Maricopa County used federal funds to allocate in April another $10 million to the Air Conditioning Replacement and Repair Program for eligible individuals, bringing total funding to $13.7 million.

In Greater Phoenix and several rural Arizona counties, older people on low incomes can get free air conditioner repair or replacement through the Program for air conditioning in healthy homesrun by the non-profit organization Senior Living Foundation. Last summer it helped about 30 people with new air conditioners or repairs.

To demonstrate the dangers to older people, two sisters were rescued from their home in Surprise, a Phoenix suburb, earlier this month after police found them sweltering in 45.5 degrees Celsius with a malfunctioning cooling system.

“I don’t like the heat here,” said 93-year-old Paula Martinez Fox 10 news. The officers took her and her sister Linda, 87, to a senior center to cool off and bought a new air conditioner with the department’s community funds.

Surprise Police Sgt. Richard Hernandez said he and his colleagues still remember Pullman’s death in a community just five miles away.

“There’s definitely more awareness now than there used to be,” Hernandez said. “We kept saying, ‘If we had known, maybe we could have helped.'”

A woman’s heat death in Arizona after her power was cut sparked change, but advocates want more

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