Their main job is putting out fires, but increasingly firefighters are responding to opiate-related overdoses as the scourge of fentanyl sweeps across Canada.
In the past 18 months, the number of suspected overdoses that firefighters respond to has grown to about 30 a month.
“We’re able to handle it. We have three companies that can respond to it,” said assistant Maple Ridge fire chief Mark Smitton.
Maple Ridge firefighters, earlier this year, were all trained on administering Narcan, or naxolone to counteract opioid-related overdoses.
Opioids can produce euphoria, but are also depressants, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which means that they slow down the part of the brain that controls breathing, to point where breathing stops.
While Vancouver and Delta cope with recent waves of overdoses, Maple Ridge had its own spike in numbers at the start of the week.
On Monday, Maple Ridge firefighters responded to four suspected overdoses, followed by another three on Tuesday.
For most of those calls, the patient was revived by B.C. Ambulance crews. But on Tuesday night, firefighters administered Narcan at an overdose in the area of 222nd Street. It’s only the third time fire crews have used the antidote since being equipped with it in May.
Smitton said in the past two months firefighters responded to only two overdoses at the temporary homeless shelter on Lougheed Highway in the downtown.
“We’re not having the ODs in the shelter,” Smitton said. “The hard part is the people who are there are not necessarily the ones having the ODs. It’s other people around the area.”
Smitton said overdoses can’t all be linked to the shelter, which now has 40 people staying in it.
“And there are many others who are homeless out there,” he added.
“Generally, Maple Ridge, as a whole, has a problem. It’s hitting all the families in one way or the other. It’s not just the homeless people having the problem. It’s a societal thing.”
Smitton has noticed an increase in calls for suspected overdoses since the beginning summer 2015.
“August was the first time we were below 25.”
In April 2016, provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall and Health Minister Terry Lake declared a public health emergency in response to the opioid overdose crisis. Since then, more information on overdose events has helped the health system and other partners identify what strategies will be most effective in preventing and responding to opioid overdoses.
Narcan kits have now been widely distributed, and Fraser Health is considering supervised consumption sites, including one for Maple Ridge.
Smitton estimated that half the total number of overdoses the department gets called to are in the downtown area. But more calls originate from the downtown because more people are living there.
Smitton said that fire crews respond to overdoses across the city.
Maple Ridge fire chief Howard Exner said it’s important to note that it can’t be said conclusively that all overdoses are caused by fentanyl.
“We’ve seen people come back … from a whole bunch of different things.”
He said the increase in calls to suspected overdoses has added to the department’s response totals.
“It’s not like drug use has increased. The issue is the toxicity of the drugs has increased,” probably as a result of fentanyl, he said.
Ridge Meadows RCMP are also being trained in administering Narcan, but will use the nasal spray instead of the Epipen type injector.
Officers will soon be equipped with such kits to counter act effects of fentanyl on individuals or even police officers who could become exposed simply by skin contact.
Delta police hosted Fentanyl Forums this week after attending to nine overdoses of what is believed to be fentanyl-tainted drugs in a 20-minute period on Sept. 1.
RCMP also say the drug is taking more police time, particularly for the general duty officers.
“Police can’t conclusively say that every drug on the street contains fentanyl, but most of our analyzed drug seizures, where police believe the drug is an opiate, has contained at least traces of fentanyl,” said Supt. Dave Fleugel.
He said that hard-core addicts probably know that fentanyl has been laced with whatever drug they’re using. Casual users however may not know that.