The union representing Calgary firefighters, who responded to more than 4,000 overdose and poisoning calls last year – a sevenfold increase in five years – says its members need more support to meet the growing demand for their services amid the opioid crisis.
Data provided to The Globe and Mail by the Calgary Firefighters Association shows there were 4,086 overdose and poisoning 911 calls to the Calgary Fire Department in 2021, up from 541 in 2016 and far outpacing increases in the numbers of calls for other life-threatening, time-dependent emergencies.
Codey McIntyre, the union president and an active firefighter, said that on some calls firefighters have shown up to multiple people overdosing simultaneously and have had to bring in other units after running out of naloxone, a life-saving medication used to reverse the effect of opioids. Sometimes the drugs are so potent that a person requires multiple doses in quick succession.
“This is a very tragic situation, and we just don’t see an end in sight,” Mr. McIntyre said. “Our Calgary firefighters show up every day, proud to protect Calgarians, and it’s just getting a lot harder … our budgets are getting smaller and smaller.”
He said Calgary has the lowest staffing level of any metropolitan fire department in the country and faces an unprecedented demand for its services across the board, which is why the union is lobbying city council to boost the department’s budget.
Overdose and poisoning calls can include other types of emergencies, such as carbon monoxide poisoning, but the vast majority of those calls last year were drug-related, Mr. McIntyre said, and can require firefighters to administer naloxone, provide oxygen or perform CPR.
Overdose deaths, linked largely to high-potency opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil, have risen significantly across Canada during the pandemic. In Calgary alone, the death toll reached 570 last year, compared with 228 in 2016. Provincial data does not show how many people suffered non-fatal overdoses, but frontline health care workers, people actively using substances and emergency services have pointed to extraordinary levels.
Calgary Fire Chief Steve Dongworth said firefighters often arrive before emergency medical services (EMS) to overdose-related calls and spend a good deal of time with patients before paramedics arrive. Sometimes they’re too late. He said the service does not track fatalities but they’re “not uncommon.”
“If you’re in cardiac arrest, every minute your chance of survival decreases by 10 per cent, so in 10 minutes you have virtually no chance of survival,” he said.
Fire departments have been left to fill a void in recent years as paramedics have also faced surging demand and staffing shortfalls. It’s not unusual for city ambulances to be on red alert, which means none are available at a given time. Cities such as Calgary have criticized the province for centralizing ambulance dispatch under Alberta Health Services (AHS) last year, linking it to delays.
The Alberta Substance Use Surveillance dashboard shows EMS responses to opioid-related events in 2021 grew 33 per cent from 2018. EMS directed a request for comment to AHS. Spokesperson Kerry Williamson said, in a statement, that EMS continues to manage a sustained increase in 911 calls, which at times are 30 per cent above prepandemic levels.
Chief Dongworth said the numbers of drug poisoning calls and mental health calls are even higher this year over last year. He emphasized that increasing firefighters’ ability to respond is crucial but won’t solve the problem.
“These are some of the most stressful calls that they have to deal with,” he said. “Not all, but a number are experiencing social problems, mental health challenges, homelessness, and it’s devastating to see another human being, frankly, experiencing all of those things with no apparent ability to break the cycle.”
He said the city and the province need more drug use prevention programs and broader supports for people using substances.
Alberta’s associate ministry of mental health and addictions did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Edmonton Fire Rescue Services said in a statement that it is also seeing a spike in overdose and poisoning calls. Over four years it has recorded a 451-per-cent increase, from 1,063 events in 2018 to 5,863 in 2021. This year is trending slightly above 2021 totals, with almost 3,200 events in the first six months.
Even Calgary police, who are generally not called to medical events such as overdoses, are feeling the strain. Lindsay Nykoluk, a spokesperson for the Calgary Police Service, said: “The sad reality is our officers are coming across more ‘on-view’ situations where they are administering naloxone as a life-saving measure.”
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