By The Canadian Press
Jan. 22, 2018, Surrey, B.C. - Firefighters in Surrey, B.C., have turned to technology in the battle against opioid overdoses.
The fire department has partnered with Vancouver-based software developer GINQO to create a program that mines data from dispatch calls in real-time to identify clusters of overdoses.
Those clusters can be a sign that a batch of tainted drugs is circulating on the streets and the program can alert first responders to a potentially escalating situation.
The software kicks in automatically when data from emergency calls corresponds with specific criteria, such as more than three overdoses within one square kilometre in a four-hour period.
The Surrey Fire Service started using the program late last June and has since received 10 alerts about overdose clusters.
Fire Chief Len Garis says when the department gets an alert, they can make sure they have the resources available to respond properly.
"We were basically sitting and waiting for things to happen and now we can see the surges coming and we can adapt to it,'' he said.
The department was inspired to take action after 17 overdoses over a 72-hour period in December 2016, Garis said. The overdoses were later linked to what appeared to be tainted batches of crack cocaine and pure cocaine, he said.
The firefighters responded to an average of 7.5 overdose calls per day in Surrey last year.
"There's a huge strain on our first responders because we've been running pillar to post trying to address this," Garis said.
The department has also formed a partnership with Statistics Canada aimed at trying to determine a typology on individuals who are overdosing.
Officials and software developers are working to make the alert program predictive so it can say when and where overdoses may occur.
That will help first responders become proactive instead of reactive, allowing them to prevent overdoses, Garis said.
"It's giving us some hope that we're trying to get in front of this thing,'' he said.
The Surrey Fire Service said government and public health officials from across North America began requesting information and presentations about the alert program within months of its development.
The latest figures from the British Columbia coroner's service show there were 1,208 illicit drug overdose deaths across the province between January and October last year.
The data shows the powerful opioid fentanyl was detected in about 83 per cent of the deaths.