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A woman walks past a sign posted by the Insite supervised injection site warning of heroin cut with fentanyl in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., on Aug. 12, 2015.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Along with their body armour, Vancouver police will soon be equipped with another personal protection measure – naloxone, a drug used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

The primary purpose of the initiative is to protect officers and support staff who may come into contact with dangerous opioids such as fentanyl rather than revive those who have overdosed, as officers do not typically attend overdose calls.

The Vancouver Police Department announced the initiative on Friday, after months of discussions about the growing fentanyl crisis and the appropriateness of officers carrying the overdose antidote. The department, and its union, had expressed safety concerns about the injectable drug; a recently approved nasal spray version allayed those fears.

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Temporary Sergeant Brian Montague said he has heard of at least three law enforcement officers in the province – not VPD officers – who have required medical attention after coming into contact with fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid now detected in a majority of fatal overdoses in B.C.

"Our staff has been increasingly coming into contact with fentanyl," he said Friday. "We obviously want to protect our officers and our civilian staff. We've had several incidents in Vancouver that have caused us concern."

Officers and support staff will be trained over the next several weeks on how to administer the drug. It will be offered to anyone who requests it, including those in the VPD drug section, property office, community safety personnel and various aspects of patrol, Sgt. Montague said.

Since 2003, the VPD has had a policy of not attending overdose calls unless requested by paramedics, as an effort to encourage people to call 911 immediately in the event of an overdose. For this reason, they are unlikely to be the first to arrive at an overdose. But Sgt. Montague said there is nothing preventing officers from administering naloxone should they come across such a scene.

Naloxone will cost the department $145 a unit; the initial $75,000 cost will come out of the VPD's equipment budget.

Firefighters in both Vancouver and Surrey – typically the first to respond to overdose calls – have carried naloxone since the beginning of this year, but very few police officers in Canada currently do. Scott Pattison, spokesman for the Edmonton Police Service, said officers there began carrying naloxone "after recognizing the extreme dangers associated to fentanyl and the potential for our officers to come into contact with the lethal drug."

In the United States, many police departments whose officers are often first on the scene of overdoses carry naloxone specifically for the purpose of providing the antidote.

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"We've gone from traditional policing to everything from being lifesavers by carrying [naloxone] to getting people prepared for treatment and driving them to treatment," said Newtown, Ohio, Police Chief Tom Synan. His department began issuing the antidote to officers last November.

Illicit fentanyl, largely manufactured in China and smuggled into Canada, can be 50 to 80 times more potent than morphine. An amount about the size of two grains of salt can kill a healthy adult, making exposure to the synthetic opioid very dangerous.

At least 433 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. in the first seven months of this year. Preliminary data suggest fentanyl was detected in about 60 per cent of those deaths.

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