VANCOUVER — The fire hall in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has been overwhelmed by emergency medical calls since the illicit opioid fentanyl has spurred a deadly overdose crisis.
Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney said crews at Fire Hall No. 2 have been making about 1,000 runs per month this year, compared with an average of 600 calls every month in past years as overdose reports pour in from the neighbourhood.
It has forced the department to redistribute resources, jurisdictions and staff.
While fighting fires remains the priority for the hall, McKearney said, "They're mostly just focused now on very small areas that relates to medical calls.''
Jane Philpott scrums with media in Ottawa on Nov. 1. (Photo: Matthew Usherwood/The Canadian Press)
The B.C. government declared a public health emergency in April because of the dramatic increase in overdose deaths in the province, much of them caused by fentanyl. There were 555 reported overdose deaths in the province as of Sept. 30.
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott met with municipal and provincial officials on Thursday at the fire hall to hear about the challenges that first responders are experiencing as they try to cope with the overdose crisis.
Across the country, an estimated five to six people die every day due to overdosing, Philpott said to reporters ahead of the meeting.
"It is long past time that we all come together and do our part to respond to this," she said.
Firefighters in Vancouver have long been the first responder to medical emergencies and earlier this year they were trained to use the opioid antidote naloxone in response to the rising number of deaths, McKearney said.
"It is long past time that we all come together and do our part to respond to this."
The new lifesaving practice could set an example for other fire departments across the country to adopt, he said.
But the repeated calls to drug-related health emergencies takes a toll on first responders.
"The hardest thing on the staff is to keep going back and to see the same people, with their lives ruined, living on the street, with mental health issues either as a result of or caused by (substance abuse)," McKearney said.
Firefighters at the Downtown Eastside hall are allowed to work at the site for only a year and are then transferred to other locations in the city, reducing the mental health implications that come with the stress of the job, the chief said.
Philpott said that responding to the crisis requires a complex plan that addresses issues of poverty, homelessness, and mental health and addictions.
"The consequence is more people dying."
"One single change of legislation is not going to fix the problem," she said. "We need to make sure we look at the big picture."
Regional health officials, including Vancouver Coastal Health, have called on the federal government to make it easier for communities to set up safe consumption sites as one method of tackling overdoses and other issues that result from drug use.
Philpott said the government is looking at reducing barriers for setting up such sites, but wouldn't be specific.
Legislative changes for safe consumption sites are under consideration and will be announced in the near future, she said.
Former New Democrat MP for East Vancouver Libby Davies said promises of legislative changes coming "soon" are frustrating to hear for communities struggling to respond to the overdose crisis.
"This is an urgent situation ... we know safe injection sites work, we need them now," Davies said. "The consequence is more people dying."