We propose a simple method to provide a rapid and robust estimate of the short-term impacts of heat waves on mortality, to be used for communication within a heat warning system. The excess mortality during a heat wave is defined as the difference between the observed mortality over the period and the observed mortality over the same period during the N preceding years. This method was tested on 19 French cities between 1973 and 2007. In six cities, we compared the excess mortality to that obtained using a modelling of the temperature-mortality relationship. There was a good agreement between the excess mortalities estimated by the simple indicator and by the models. Major differences were observed during the most extreme heat waves, in 1983 and 2003, and after the implementation of the heat prevention plan in 2006. Excluding these events, the mean difference between the estimates obtained by the two methods was of 13 deaths [1:45]. A comparison of mortality with the previous years provides a simple estimate of the mortality impact of heat waves. It can be used to provide early and reliable information to stakeholders of the heat prevention plan, and to select heat waves that should be further investigated.