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New tool helping save lives in Surrey drug overdose crisis

Fire chief Len Garis says program is a first in Canada
Emergency crews responding to a drug overdose in Surrey. (Photo: Now-Leader file)

Surrey’s fire department is leading Canada’s charge in saving drug overdose victims with new technology that tracks overdose “clusters” and warns emergency service when a bad batch of opioids hits the street.

“The technology is the first I’m aware of in this country,” Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis told the Now-Leader.

The success of this program is drawing the attention of health officials in North America, he added.

The city with help from GINQO, developer of Qlik business intelligence software, is mining real-time data collected through dispatch calls to send resources where they’re needed.

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

If in any four-hour period three overdoses occur within a square kilometre, this is flagged, an alert is sent to senior officers in the fire department, the chief medical health officer of Fraser Health, and help is on the way. If there’s a “cluster,” Garis said, leaflets warning about bad drugs will also be distributed in the area.

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He noted that 17 people overdosed in Surrey during a 72-hour period in December 2016. Firefighters, Fraser Health, police and paramedics were left “scrambling,” he said. “The situation was quite appalling and quite stressful.”

The program was developed in response and launched on June 27, 2017. So far there have been 10 alerts. Garis said this technology is “absolutely” helping to save lives. Despite the common belief most overdoses happen on the streets, he said, “The lion’s share of people are dying in their homes.”

“With the strain the opioid crisis has put on our first responders, this business tool is helping us and our partners to be in the right place at the right time.”

The number of drug overdoses in Surrey is staggering, with emergency crews responded to an average of 7.5 per day. Last years 2,707 overdoses were responded to in Surrey, 2,623 in 2016 and 1,606 in 2015.

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner noted that it’s often asked how many lives could be saved if emergency responders had real-time information available when clusters of opioid overdoses happen. “By developing and employing this software, the Surrey Fire Service has taken the initiative that will allow first responders to respond more quickly and effectively when clusters of overdoses take place, and by doing so, more lives will ultimately be saved.”

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About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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