Arizona woman’s heat death after power outage sparks change, but advocates want more

PHOENIX — ( — Stephanie Pullman died in sweltering Arizona the day after her power went out due to a $51 debt.

Five years later, the 72-year-old’s story remains at the center of an effort to keep others in Arizona from losing power, leaving them without vital air conditioning in temperatures that have topped 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) every day this month.

“Stephanie Pullman was the face of the fight that helped establish shutdown rules for large regulated utilities in Arizona,” said Stacey Champion, a defense attorney who pushed for the new rules. “But we need more.

The Arizona Public Service, known as APS, took Pullman off power in September 2018 when outside temperatures reached 107 degrees Fahrenheit (41.6 Celsius) in her retirement community west of Phoenix. Just a few days prior, a $125 payment had been made on Pullman’s overdue $176 bill.

Her body was found at her home during a subsequent medical examination.

The medical examiner’s office stated that Pullman died from “exposure to ambient heat” coupled with cardiovascular disease after the blackout.

Like many older residents of retirement communities in the Phoenix area, Pullman was a native of the Midwest and lived alone after moving from Ohio, where her family remained.

Details about Pullman’s life are sketchy because her family cannot discuss the case under a private legal agreement with APS.

“I can’t talk,” Pullman’s son, Tim Pullman, said when he got a call from Ohio.

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

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

Pullman’s death prompted Champion and others to demand new rules to prevent blackouts. The case drew attention to the dangers of extreme heat and led to change.

“People are now more aware that low-income people can lose electricity in their home at any time,” said Phoenix attorney Tom Ryan, a consumer advocate familiar with the Pullman case. “Could anyone spare her $51?”

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

Last year, the commission permanently banned power outages during the hottest months.

Electricity companies can pause shutdowns from June 1 to October 15, or suspend them on days when temperatures are forecast to be above 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius) or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 Celsius). APS; Tucson Electric Power serving Arizona’s second largest city; and UniSource, which provides power to Mojave and Santa Cruz counties, opted for a date-based option.

“Until mid-October, there will be no cutoffs for tenant delinquent accounts,” with the cancellation of late fees during this period, APS confirmed. “We encourage customers who are struggling with delinquent accounts to contact us so we can work with them to restore their account and try to prevent balances from accumulating further.”

APS is the principal subsidiary of the public company Pinnacle West Capital Corp. and has about 1.2 million customers. It gives a discount of up to 25% on electricity bills for people who qualify, 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.

Arizona’s second largest electricity supplier, the Salt River Project, or SRP, is known as a power and irrigation district, not a utility, and has about 1.1 million customers. It also supplies water to parts of the Phoenix Metro. As a public non-profit district, SRP is not controlled by a state commission, but is governed by a publicly elected Board and Council.

SRP says it is stopping outages during extreme heat warnings issued by the National Weather Service. But Champion noted that people died on hot days without such warnings.

In the midst of the current heatwave, SRP announced on Friday that it is ending all non-payment disconnections for residential and commercial customers through July and will not cut off for non-payment to anyone on its limited-income economy plan until August.

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

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

On Friday, Gov. Kathy Hobbs sent a letter to Arizona’s power companies, demanding they put in writing their plans for the current blackout heatwave, how they will deal with possible power outages, and how they will respond in the event of a power outage.

Champion said she thinks state legislation will help provide stricter rules against power company shutdowns, but nothing stands before the state legislature.

Within the city of Phoenix, the ordinance requires landlords to keep their air conditioners cooled to 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius) or below, and evaporative coolers to bring the temperature down to 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius). Both types of cooling devices must be kept in good working order.

Maricopa County, where Phoenix is ​​located, said Wednesday that as of July 15 this year, there have been 18 confirmed heat-related deaths since April 11. Another 69 deaths remain under investigation.

Only four of the heat-related deaths confirmed in 2023 occurred inside. Three of them had non-working air conditioners, and one had access to electricity, but it was not turned on.

Maricopa County confirmed 425 heat-related deaths in 2022 during the region’s hottest summer on record, with more than half of them occurring in July. Eighty percent of the deaths occurred on the street.

Like Pullman, most of the 30 people who died indoors in the county last year were isolated and had mobility or health problems. One of them was an 83-year-old woman with dementia who died in a house with no air conditioning. She lived alone after her husband entered the hospice.

There have long been utility relief programs for homeowners and renters across the state, but advocates say efforts to protect people from blackouts in America’s hottest big subway have intensified since Pullman’s death.

Local governments and nonprofits often pay utility bills with no repayment requirement, and the Arizona Department of Economic Security also assists with billing.

Efforts were also stepped up to repair and replace faulty cooling systems.

Maricopa County used federal funds in April to provide another $10 million for an air conditioner replacement and repair program for people who qualify, bringing the total funding to $13.7 million.

In Greater Phoenix and several rural Arizona counties, low-income seniors can get free air conditioner repairs or replacements through the Healthy Homes Air Conditioning Program, run by the nonprofit Foundation for Senior Living. Last summer, he helped about 30 people buy new air conditioners or repair them.

Demonstrating a danger to the elderly, two sisters were rescued from their home in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise earlier this month after police found them exhausted in temperatures of 114 degrees Fahrenheit (45.5 Celsius) due to a faulty cooling system.

“I don’t like the heat here,” Paula Martinez, 93, told Fox 10 news. Officers took her and her sister, Linda, 87, to a nursing home to cool off and bought a new air conditioner with the department’s public grant funds.

Surprise police sergeant. Richard Hernandez said he and his fellow officers still remember Pullman’s death in a village just 5 miles away.

“There is definitely more awareness now than there used to be,” Hernandez said. “We kept saying, ‘If we only knew, maybe we could help.’

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