Opioids, mental health calls cause Calgary firefighters to increase volume

Calgary Fire Department fire truck. CALGARY LIVEWIRE FILE PHOTO

There weren’t any big surprises for the Calgary Fire Department in 2021, but they saw call volume increase by 14%.

Calgary Fire Department Chief Steve Dongworth, in a year-end interview with LiveWire Calgary, said this has been a busy year with trends that reflect what is happening in society. He said they had seen the majority of their calls increase in areas such as overdoses and mental health appeals.

“We’re definitely extremely stressed in terms of you know, we have a much higher workload, the physical and psychological demands on our staff have increased dramatically,” Dongworth said.

In the November budget adjustment, the fire department received $ 10 million for 56 firefighters and leadership training. In public submissions, the firefighters association said their membership was at a breaking point.

Chief Dongworth said the Calgary Firefighters Association can use any language they want. They run a lean service with fewer firefighters per truck than other cities, he said. The investment was necessary.

“I think there is certainly reason to look at this as we move forward and hopefully come out of the economic situation we find ourselves in and think about a very strategic, smart and necessary investment in the service of Calgary fire, ”Chief Dongworth said. .

Opioid-related calls

Chief Dongworth said they answer about 10 opioid calls every 24 hours. That’s a 60% increase from 2020, he said. They are delivering nasal naloxone at a rate 50% higher than in 2020.

“I think what we are seeing is not surprising given that the number of deaths is on the rise and there are certainly a lot of other agencies saying there is increased use of these drugs,” did he declare.

Dongworth said they will closely monitor the new provincial program being rolled out to Edmonton. The province’s Virtual Opioid Dependence Program is a digital overdose response system. Edmonton Fire Stations will be a community drop-in point to help determine treatment and provide families of addicts with support avenues.

It could work in Calgary as well, Dongworth said.

“I mean, we’re part of the fabric of the community and opioid overdoses or opioid use is becoming, like you said, a difficult problem,” he said.

Fire commission

During this year’s fiscal adjustment debate, the idea of ​​having a fire commission arose.

The Calgary Police Service has a citizen watchdog – the Calgary Police Commission. The Calgary Fire Department reports to the Community Services Business Unit.

With a fire commission it could function in the same way as a police commission and therefore the chief would report directly to the council.

While this is not a common model in Canada, Dongworth said it is in the United States. There are variations in how each is set up, but one thing remains the same: public oversight.

“I think one of the benefits, I think the police board, that we would embrace is public oversight,” Chief Dongworth said.

“Because these commissions generally involve the presence of representatives of the community as well as certain advisers. “

As to how this would affect the fire department, Dongworth wasn’t sure. He said they are already engaging with the community to try to provide relevant services.

“Perhaps a more cohesive contribution from the community on how we interact, especially with diverse communities as the city becomes more and more diverse, I think some could have real benefits,” the chef said. Dongworth.

Communications with AHS / physicians

When the province took control of the EMS dispatch, there was concern about communicating with other first responders, including firefighters.

Dongworth said he has seen a deterioration in response to calls since the change. He stated that a call was arriving at the Calgary 911 dispatch and that if EMS was required, that call was transferred to the AHS dispatch. If that call needs the police or fire department, that call is redirected to their dispatch to mobilize the response.

“We’ve seen a degradation from that point of view, and we’ve had other challenges with that as well,” Dongworth said.

Keeping firefighters on the scene while waiting for paramedics to intervene is a growing challenge. Dongworth said that, but not often, fire crews are asked to provide first aid for 30 minutes or more. Quite often, they wait on the spot for medical teams. There is a domino effect there.

“This, of course, increases the stress on our people in terms of providing the appropriate level of care,” he said.

“It also increases the strain on the system, as the more busy our unit is during a call, just like with their units, it compromises the subsequent responses required across the city. “

He said the more units there were busy on medical calls, it slows down the rest of their call system.

In a 2019 article published by LiveWire Calgary, the province said the Calgary Fire Department’s first medical response was voluntary. The city had also not subscribed to the Municipal First Response (MFR) program.

Dongworth said the city is now listed.

Much of the delay in enrollment was due to the cost of administering medical care. He was taken over by the city without any compensation from the province, Dongworth said.

Commitment against racism, diversity and fairness

Dongworth said it would be foolish to admit that racism doesn’t exist in the Calgary Fire Department.

To remedy this, they formed a joint human relations committee. It’s a partnership with the union and it’s made up of under-represented members. This group is helping set the direction for equity programming at the Calgary Fire Department, Chief Dongworth said.

“What we have chosen to do is engage people who deserve and who seek this fairness to give us advice on the things we need to change because we don’t always see it,” he said. he declares.

“I don’t have the same experience in the workplace as a black firefighter, a female firefighter or an LGBT firefighter. So we are actually asking them to help us with this work.

They don’t get rid of the responsibility, he said, they just want to focus the work on people.

He said they still have a long way to go.

“It’s not something that you can kind of flip a switch and change it overnight,” he said.

“But we are on the right track and I think this organization is better today than it was certainly a year ago than it was five or 10 years ago.”

Climate commitments

When you think of a fire department, you don’t necessarily think of their connection to climate responsibility.

The city of Calgary has made its declaration of a climate emergency, essentially laying the groundwork for all business units to improve climate accountability.

Dongworth said they’ve been finding ways to be more climate responsible for years.

They recycle the water used in their training academy. After the spray training, the water is drained into a pond (filtration) where diving instructors can practice. It again goes through natural filtration to be reused by firefighters.

They have solar panels on buildings, use biodiesel on many trucks, and explore electric fire trucks. They equipped 30 fire trucks with smaller auxiliary power units. Now they can shut down the larger emission engines on the spot.

They also have an anti-idle policy.

“This is an emergency as the city has declared and we must do more and we are looking for all possible means to support the reduction of our greenhouse gases and our impact on the environment”, a he declared.

Much greater interest in the Calgary Fire Department

One of the things that they will be starting in earnest this year is to focus on underground fire and rescue training. Construction of Calgary’s $ 5.5 billion green line is slated for spring. Soon they will have to be experts in underground response within a relatively short period of time, he said.

The big challenge remains the ongoing pandemic, Chief Dongworth said. Not just in terms of what they are able to do, but what they cannot do.

They had to stop programs such as reading to children, school fire drills, home fire inspections and safety visits. There are no more fire station tours.

This year, they will add 56 new firefighter stations. They will be able to launch their firefighter training program. He said it was an exciting time.

Dongworth didn’t want to criticize the previous advice. He said this newly elected council appears to have a greater interest in the fire service.

The influx of fiscal liquidity shows this, Dongworth said.

“It’s pretty exciting in terms of being able to maybe make sure that our service stays relevant, stays sustainable in the future,” he said.

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