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Where to cool off in a Philadelphia heat wave

How to stay cool when the outside temps are scorching and dangerous.

A hazy Philadelphia skyline as seen from I-95 southbound in South Philadelphia.
A hazy Philadelphia skyline as seen from I-95 southbound in South Philadelphia.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Despite the recent rainy days, Philly summer is no joke. Traditionally, heat waves occur at least once a summer, if not more, and last for days. And with some of the hottest days on record hitting the country in recent years, knowing how to stay cool is more important than ever.

During a heat wave, temperatures are dangerously hot, and with its many cars, crowds of people, and random blasts of heat from sidewalk grates or passing buses, Philly can feel hotter than towns outside of the city.

During city-designated heat emergencies, the city deploys a number of special programs, like cooling centers and cooling buses.

Here’s everything you need to know about how to stay cool this summer:

» READ MORE: How to stay cool in Philly without air conditioning

When does Philly declare a heat emergency?

There are different kinds of heat emergencies in Philadelphia. The National Weather Service, the Department of Public Health, and the Office of Homeless Services can issue alerts when the weather is hot.

The city declares heat emergencies by looking at the time of year, the temperatures in the forecast, and how long the heat is expected to last.

The city is more likely to declare an emergency in May and June than in July and August because people are more used to the heat in the hotter months.

Early in the season, the city will declare an emergency when the weather is likely to be 101 or higher for two consecutive days, or 98 or higher for three consecutive days.

Later in the season, if the weather is forecast for 106 or higher for two consecutive days, or 103 for three consecutive days, that will trigger a heat emergency.

Cooling centers in Philly

To keep people cool en masse during citywide heat emergencies, the city turns to a go-to resource it already has: the library. Participating libraries become spaces where people can go to get out of the hot sun.

Cooling centers operate only if the city declares a heat emergency.

“We try to keep them between 74 and 76 degrees,” Lynn Williamson, former chief of neighborhood library services for the Free Library of Philadelphia, told the Inquirer in 2022.

In 2023, the following 11 library branches are designated as potential cooling centers:

  1. Blanche A. Nixon/Cobbs Creek Library: 📍 5800 Cobbs Creek Pkwy., 📞 215-685-1973

  2. Fox Chase Library: 📍 501 Rhawn St., 📞 215-685-0547

  3. Frankford Library: 📍 4634 Frankford Ave., 📞 215-685-1473

  4. Fumo Family Library: 📍2437 South Broad St., 📞 215-685-1758

  5. Haddington Library: 📍 446 N 65th St., 📞 215-685-1970

  6. Joseph E. Coleman Regional Library: 📍 68 W Chelten Ave., 📞 215-685-2150

  7. Lillian Marrero Library: 📍 601 W. Lehigh Ave., 📞 215-685-9794

  8. Logan Library: 📍1333 Wagner Ave., 📞 215-685-9156

  9. Lucien E. Blackwell Regional Library: 📍 125 South 52nd St., 📞 215-685-7431

  10. Oak Lane Library: 📍 6614 North 12th St., 📞 215-685-2848

  11. Widener Library: 📍 2808 W. Lehigh Ave., 📞 215-685-9799

Keep in mind, an official list of places, and hours of operation, comes with each heat wave alert.

The Free Library will update its blog with any changes to hours, and you can view standard operating hours for each week on their website. The public is not only welcome to the air-conditioning, but can also access each library’s offered amenities, including internet access.

“You can browse the internet and flip through magazines,” Williamson said. “At some locations, staff may also bring out board games.”

And you don’t have to worry about staying quiet. “You can have conversations, that’s definitely what we want to see,” she said. “Everyone is welcome.”

Pools and spraygrounds

Throughout the summer months, you can head to one of the city’s public pools or spraygrounds (think of a smaller version of Dilworth Park’s massive concrete sprinkler system, built into your local playground).

To find your closest sprayground, see this map or call 311.

For swimming, 61 public pools are open for summer; the remaining 9 are closed for the season due to maintenance. If you live in an area where two swimming pools are close by, they might operate on a split schedule, so make sure to check the map before making your way there.

» READ MORE: The best public pools in Philly

Will swimming when it’s hot out really cool me off? According to physicians, it will.

“One of the ways the body thermoregulates is through conduction, which is transferring heat from the body to a cooler surface that it’s in contact with,” said Aditi Chincholi, a primary care physician at Mercy Health Associates at Chestnut Street. “Swimming would transfer excess body heat to the water in the pool, which will help regulate body temperature and keep it within normal body limits.”

Water in outdoor pools is typically cool and circulated, so even when it’s sunny and scorching out, a pool that’s at body temperature or below will help keep you cool.

“Don’t forget to stay well-hydrated and drink electrolytes and cool water,” Chincholi said. “Make sure you’re wearing loose clothes and sunscreen if you’re going to be out in the sun.

How else can I stay cool during a heat wave?

Staying cool during a heat wave is important for everyone, especially kids — they’re much more vulnerable to excessive heat, and senior citizens — who are at an increased risk of getting sick or dying from the heat.

If you need help identifying signs of heat exhaustion or are worried about someone’s health, the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging has a Heatline where nurses from the city’s Health Department will assist you. Call 215-765-9040, between noon to 8 p.m.

As you work on keeping everyone at home cool, don’t forget to check on your pet. “Like people, pets are pretty good at making choices to keep themselves cool if they are given the opportunity,” said Art City Vets & Urgent Care veterinarian Zachary Glantz. You can help your pet cool down by providing free access to water and breaks in between walks, even if they don’t want to stop.

The city encourages everyone to wear light colors, avoid drinking alcohol, stay in air-conditioned spaces, and check up on relatives and friends to make sure fans and air conditioners are working.

Staff writer Anthony R. Wood contributed to this article. This article has been updated since it first published.

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