From the Editor: January 2017
By Laura King
Several years ago, I spent a day at Edmonton Fire Rescue, learning about fire-hall routines and responding to calls with the rescue and pumper crews. My blog from June 25, 2010, tells part of the story: “A call came in for the unglamorous task of unclogging a needle deposit box at a community centre – a task probably not unique to Edmonton Fire but not common to many Canadian departments . . . ”
Those were simpler days.
Fast forward to 2016 and firefighters in Edmonton, like in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Burnaby, Delta, Sooke, Surrey and municipalities across the country, are responding to much more challenging calls for opiate overdoses, something no young, enthusiastic firefighter envisioned during CPAT testing or pump ops.
Firefighers – and management – in Vancouver have, rightly, pushed for more resources to deal with the overwhelming call volume; council in December complied, approving a tax increase to help fund an additional truck and crew members, and a full-time mental-health worker to help responders cope with the crisis.
As CBC radio host Stephen Quinn wrote in an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail, left-leaning councillor Geoff Meggs reasoned that the fentanyl crisis is a taxpayer responsibility – his perspective akin to the village-raising-a-child adage.
“His argument goes like this,” Quinn wrote. “First responders such as firefighters and police are funded with property taxes; there is unprecedented pressure on those first responders because of the number of people overdosing on fentanyl; and so when more resources are needed to support those emergency services, property tax is the obvious source.”
Some councillors disagree and want more provincial and federal support – the province has created six new safe-injection sites, and federal Health Minister Jane Philpott met with firefighters in November and promised to consider measures such as affordable housing.
The issue is complex; teenagers and recreational drug users inadvertently consume fentanyl-laced products and end up needing first responders. People who have never been drug users become addicted after taking medication prescribed by doctors.
As Quinn wrote, “People are dying at the rate of two a day. If those deaths can be prevented with additional funding for emergency services, we have an obligation to do something about it.”
And as Winnipeg firefighters union president Alex Forrest told me in an interview in December, regardless of the municipality, firefighters need to be part of the solution to the problem that is working its way eastward across the country.
Perhaps. But at what cost?
“To be selfish about it,” Quinn wrote, “imagine that you or a loved one suffers a stroke or heart attack or is involved in a car crash and emergency services are too busy to get to you because they’re reviving overdose victims.”
Responders, by nature, want to help people, and union presidents, by nature, want to ensure that firefigher jobs are preserved.
But responding to opiate-overdose calls results in fatigue and stress and busts morale.
As Vancouver firefighters union vice-president Geoff Bourdeaudhuy said in an interview, the problem is far bigger than the fire department can handle.
Simpler days, indeed.