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Arizona woman’s heat death after her power was cut off spurred changes, but advocates want more

PHOENIX (AP) — Stephanie Pullman died on a sweltering Arizona day after her electricity was cut off because of a $51 debt.

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

“Stephanie Pullman was the face of the fight that helped put the disconnect rules in place for the big, regulated utilities in Arizona,” said Stacey Champion, an advocate who pushed for new regulations. “But we need more.”

Arizona Public Service, known as APS, disconnected Pullman’s power in September 2018 at a time when outside temperatures in her retirement community west of Phoenix reached 107 degrees Fahrenheit (41.6 Celsius). Just days before, a $125 payment was made toward Pullman’s past-due bill of $176.

Her body was found inside her home during a subsequent wellness check.

The medical examiner’s office said Pullman died from “ environmental heat exposure ” combined with cardiovascular disease after the shutoff.

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

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

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

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

APS didn’t address the settlement when contacted last week, but said in a statement it “is here to help customers and we are making sure they stay connected during the summer months.”

Pullman’s death prompted Champion and others to demand new rules to prevent shutoffs. The case raised awareness about extreme heat dangers, and it did spark change.

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

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

Last year, the commission permanently banned electricity cutoffs during the hottest months.

Electric utilities can choose to pause disconnections from June 1 through October 15, or pause them on days forecasted to be above 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius) or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 Celsius). APS; Tucson Electric Power, which serves Arizona’s second largest city; and UniSource, which provides power in Mohave and Santa Cruz counties, chose the date-based option.

“There will be no disconnections for past due residential accounts through mid-October,” with late fees waived during that period, APS confirmed. “We urge customers who are struggling with overdue bills to contact us so we can work with them to get their account in good standing and try to keep balances from continuing to build.”

APS is the principal subsidiary of publicly traded Pinnacle West Capital Corp., and has about 1.2 million customers. It gives a discount of up to 25% on energy bills for people who qualify, like a family of three with a gross monthly income under $4,143, or a single person in a home with a gross monthly income of up to $2,430.

Arizona’s second largest provider of electricity, Salt River Project, or SRP, is known as a power and irrigation district rather than a utility and has around 1.1 million customers. It additionally supplies water in parts of metro Phoenix. 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 halts shutoffs during excessive heat warnings issued by 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 it was halting all cutoffs for nonpayment for residential and commercial customers through July, and would not disconnect for failure to pay anyone on its economy price plan for customers with limited income through August.

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

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

Gov. Katie Hobbs sent a letter to Arizona’s power companies on Friday, demanding that they spell out in writing their plans during the current hot spell for disconnections of service, how they will handle possible grid outages, and how they will react in the event of an emergency outage.

Champion said she thinks state legislation would help ensure stricter rules against power company shutoffs, but nothing is before the state Legislature.

Within Phoenix city limits, an ordinance requires landlords to ensure that their air conditioning units will cool to 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius) or below and that evaporative coolers bring the temperature down to 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius). Both types of cooling units must be kept in good working order.

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

Just four of the heat-associated deaths confirmed in 2023 occurred inside. Three involved non-functioning air conditioners and one that had access to electricity but wasn’t turned on.

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

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

There have long been utility assistance programs for homeowners and renters across the state, but advocates say efforts to protect people from shutoffs in America’s hottest big metro increased after Pullman died.

Local governments and nonprofit agencies often pay utility bills without a requirement for repayment and the Arizona Department of Economic Security also helps with bills.

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

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

In greater Phoenix and several rural Arizona counties, older low-income people can get free repair or replacement of air conditioners through the Healthy Homes Air Conditioning Program, run by the nonprofit Foundation for Senior Living. Last summer, it helped about 30 people get new air conditioners or repairs.

Demonstrating the dangers for older people, two sisters were rescued from their home in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise earlier this month after police found them sweltering in 114 degrees Fahrenheit (45.5 Celsius) with a faulty cooling system.

“I don’t like the heat over here,” Paula Martinez, 93, told 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 grant funds.

Surprise Police Sgt. Richard Hernandez said he and fellow officers still remember Pullman’s death in a community just 5 miles (8 kilometers) away.

“There certainly is more awareness now then there used to be,” said Hernandez. “We kept saying, ‘If we had only known, maybe we could have helped.’”

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