The volume of emergency calls for overdoses and opioid-related deaths spiked again last week, and this week promises to be no better.
Downtown Eastside residents endured the near continuous sound of sirens Wednesday after income assistance cheques were issued.
“Our women and elders tell me, ‘I hate cheque day. I don’t want to go to sleep because I don’t know who is going to be alive tomorrow,'” said Harsha Walia of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. “Some people are in a constant state of grief and, however people cope individually, there is a collective sense of trauma and death.”
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services answered 169 overdose calls last week. Police report that eight people died, bringing Vancouver’s total overdose deaths to 126 so far this year.
“This is a really intense reality and not what you’d expect in Vancouver. It’s like living in a war zone, and it has the same psychological effect,” Walia said.
The overdose call rate was up 29 per cent from the week before. The majority of calls came from the Downtown Eastside, but most of the deaths were outside the downtown area.
B.C. has experienced a four-fold surge in overdoses over the past two years, attributed mainly to illicit drugs contaminated with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Fire crews are scrambling to keep up with a “ridiculously high” volume of calls, said Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services spokesman Jonathan Gormick.
Early in 2015, Downtown Eastside Fire Hall #2 answered about 50 overdose calls a month, but by December 2016 that had jumped to 438 as the fentanyl crisis deepened, according to data released by the city.
Fire and rescue personnel answered 781 overdose calls in total, and deployed the life-saving opioid blocker Narcan 36 times in December, 17 of those instances in the Downtown Eastside. Firefighters were equipped with Narcan early last year, and deployed it 141 times in 2016.
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services — projected to answer 600 overdose calls this month across the city — has capped the time spent by firefighters at Hall #2 at one year to limit physical and emotional wear and tear.
Staff are showing signs of “compassion fatigue,” from the stress of serving so many people again and again and seeing so many of them die.
“(Clients) become familiar faces, and you see them 10 or 17 times, but eventually you have a call where you can’t help them,” said Gormick.
“The situational awareness you need to work in that environment, from the risk of contamination by bed bugs to violence or infectious disease, means our spidey senses have to be on full alert at all times,” he said. “It’s very taxing.”
Responsibility for the department’s fireboats has been moved out of Hall #2 as firefighters stationed there could not spare the time to train on them, he said.
“The call volume is exceedingly high,” he said. “Hall #2 went from being one of the busiest fire halls in Canada at about 400 to 500 calls a month to nearly 1,500 in the space of a year.”
Replacement crews are brought in regularly to give crews there time away to do compulsory training and skills certification.
“Anecdotally, we’ve seen more calls (from firefighters) to the mental health support team,” he said. “They are more willing than in the past to put their hand up when they need to talk.”
Mayor Gregor Robertson dubbed the loss of life due to overdose “atrocious” and called on the provincial government to massively expand prescription drug therapy, including heroin, to addicts.
Last year, 931 people died of overdose, including 216 in Vancouver, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.
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