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Overdose epidemic draining for DTES firefighters: VFA

(Photo by Dustin Godfrey for NEWS 1130)

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Being a firefighter is already a tough job with long hours, but the overdose epidemic in BC is making life unbearable for those working on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Some say they’re buckling under the extremely high number of calls, many of them for opioid overdoses.

That fire hall has always been a busy one. Six-hundred calls per month used to be high and now, over 1,000 is becoming normal. Firefighters are out on countless overdose calls for much of their shift so they say their downtime is turning into recovery time, instead of time to spend with their families.

The President of the Vancouver Firefighters Association says that’s not all, there’s a mental health element as well. Robert Weeks says firefighters want to help, but they are increasingly feeling there’s no end in sight.

“When you don’t see those efforts translating into a meaningful outcome, it’s really disheartening. So what I hear often from my members is it’s hopeless down there. All their efforts go in vain. That nothing is getting better. That’s hard mentally to cope with and so I think that needs to be recognized as well.”

Some are reviving the same people on a daily basis, occasionally twice in one day. Weeks says some of the victims are abusive as well.

“I’ve even been on calls… I still pull shifts in the fire halls. You’ll go to the same people on the same shift. Or you’ll get people who are quite upset that you did ruin their high because that’s exactly what Narcan does. It takes away their high. But what they’re obviously missing that most logical people would understand, is they weren’t breathing when we got there and they were going to die if we didn’t.”

Weeks believes the sheer volume of overdose calls could one day prevent them from making it to an actual fire in time to put it out without injury or destruction.

He wants to see more firefighters on duty, but more importantly adequate resources to attack the opioid problem.

Vancouver’s Fire Chief says they’re continuously monitoring call volumes on the Downtown Eastside.

In a statement, Fire Chief John McKearney says “In order to protect the mental and physical health of our firefighters in the DTES, we have a policy whereby we transfer our firefighters from fire hall #2 out of that district to a less busy fire hall after completing 18 months of service. On average, firefighters are stationed in specific community fire halls for 3 – 5 years (fire hall #2 in the DTES being the exception). To further assist the workload impact at fire hall #2 in the DTES, the Department recently moved the Marine Fire Response team to another fire hall.”

He adds the department is working on technology which allows the fire hall to recall firefighters if an ambulance is already responding. McKearney says budget requirements are also being reviewed yearly.