Ambulance drivers and fire crews are acutely feeling the crush of calls during the fentanyl crisis, a problem that’s thinning available resources and pushing up wait times for emergency medical help.
Surrey’s fire chief says fentanyl overdose-related calls are “through the roof,” and the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. (APBC) warns the crisis is worsening a problem that was already dire.
“The workload placed on us is huge,” said APBC spokesperson Dave Leary, who is a paramedic in the Surrey/North Delta area.
“This isn’t just impacting the drug users and whatnot,” Leary said. “This impacts everybody, because these high volumes of overdoses… all these other calls that would come in every day, wait now.”
Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis told The Leader while fire crews’ response times for medical calls is still well below the provincially mandated limits, they are getting longer.
And firefighters are stressed from the continual calls, which don’t seem to be abating at all.
However, wait times for ambulances are only getting worse because of the fentanyl crisis.
“It’s not unusual that I go to a call and they’ve been waiting an hour, two hours,” Leary said.
“That’s unacceptable. We don’t know when someone calls 911 what’s happening on the other end of the line.
“It’s scary. Somebody not breathing? In four to six minutes, they’re going to die… That bothers me more than anything, when I go to calls and they have been waiting.”
Prior to the current fentanyl crisis – which has seen drug overdoses skyrocket in recent months – the Metro Vancouver region was short 29 ambulances, Leary said.
The province recently announced a $5-million injection of funding for paramedic services, which will fund stationary medical support units in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and high overdose areas of Surrey.
The stations will act as a re-supply area for paramedics and will furnish users with information about how to stay safe.
Paramedics will also use bikes or ATVs to respond more quickly in hard-to-navigate areas.
But Metro region is still short 25 ambulances – and that doesn’t account for the extra ones that are needed to address this crisis.
In October, overdoses claimed 63 lives across B.C., the highest monthly death toll since April.
The total deaths reported by the B.C. Coroners Service stands at 622 for the year up to the end of October, up markedly from the 397 deaths in the same 10 months of 2015.
The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl continues to be linked to approximately 60 per cent of the fatalities – 332 cases in all or three times as many as the same period last year.
More than one-third of the total overdose deaths – 211 – have happened in the Fraser Health region, compared to 147 in Vancouver Coastal, 120 on Vancouver Island and 108 in the Interior.
The top cities where deaths have occurred so far this year are Vancouver (124), Surrey (76), Victoria (51), Kelowna (37), Kamloops (31), Abbotsford (28) and Maple Ridge (24).
Earlier in the year, “I would see an overdose every four-day block pattern,” Leary said. “We’re getting to where we’re seeing multiple a day.”
He added that paramedics are having to transport the patients to hospital as well, which is a further strain on paramedic resources.
The antidote to opioid overdose – naloxone – isn’t a perfect curbside fix every time, Leary said.
“That drug… doesn’t last as long as the opiate that’s in their body. So when they’re administered (naloxone), there’s a high likelihood that they could relapse into respiratory arrest and then go into cardiac arrest,” meaning a hospital trip is usually required.
Read the other stories in The Leader’s special series:
The faces of fentanyl
‘I can’t do this again’
More on fentanyl:
China, RCMP ink deal to battle deadly flow of fentanyl
Fentanyl linked to two overdose deaths in White Rock
Wave of overdoses in Delta spark community forum