Opioids, mental health calls behind bump in Calgary fire department volume

Calgary Fire Department Chief Steve Dongworth spoke to LiveWire Calgary about 2021 and what's ahead in 2022

Calgary Fire Department fire truck. LIVEWIRE CALGARY FILE PHOTO

There were no big surprises for the Calgary Fire Department in 2021, but they did see a call volume jump of 14 per cent.

Calgary Fire Department Chief Steve Dongworth, in a year-end interview with LiveWire Calgary, said it was a busy year with trends that reflected what was going on in society. He said they’ve seen the majority of their call increase in areas like overdoses and mental health calls.

“We’re certainly extremely stressed in terms of you know, we have a much higher workload, the demands on our staff both physically and psychologically increased significantly,” Dongworth said.

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

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

“I think there’s certainly a case for taking a look at that as we move forward and hopefully come out of the economic situation we’re in and think about some very strategic and smart and necessary investment in the Calgary Fire Department,” Chief Dongworth said.

Opioid-related calls

Chief Dongworth said they’re attending roughly 10 opioid calls in every 24-hour period. That’s a 60 per cent increase over 2020, he said.  They’re administering the nasal naloxone at a 50 per cent greater rate than in 2020.

“I think what we’re seeing is no surprise given that the numbers of deaths are up and there’s certainly lots of other agencies who are saying that there’s increased use of these drugs,” he said.

Dongworth said they’ll be keeping a close watch on the new provincial program being rolled out in Edmonton. The province’s Virtual Opioid Dependency Program is a digital overdose response system. Edmonton fire stations will be a community intake point to help determine treatment and provide families of substance users avenues for support.

It might be something that could work in Calgary, too, Dongworth said.

“I mean, we are part of the fabric of the community and the opioid overdoses or opioid use is becoming, as you said, a challenging issue,” he said.

Fire commission

During this year’s budget adjustment debate, the idea of having a fire commission came up.

The Calgary Police Service has a citizen oversight body – the Calgary Police Commission. The Calgary Fire Department reports through the Community Services business unit.

With a fire commission, it could operate similarly to the police commission, and therefore have the Chief report direct to council.

Though it’s 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 from the police commission, that we would embrace is public oversight,” Chief Dongworth said.

“Because those Commission’s generally involve having representatives from the community as well as some of the councillors on it as well.”

As for how it would affect the fire department’s service, Dongworth was unsure. He said they already engage with the community to try to provide relevant services.

“Perhaps some more consistent input from the community around how we interact, particularly with diverse communities as the city becomes increasingly diverse, I think could have some could have some real benefits,” Chief Dongworth said.

Comms with AHS / medics

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

Dongworth said they’ve seen a degradation in call response since the switch. He said a call comes into Calgary 911 dispatch and if EMS is needed, that call gets forwarded out to the AHS dispatch. If that call needs police or fire, that call gets rerouted back to their dispatch to mobilize response.

“We’ve seen a degradation from that perspective, and we’ve also we just had some other challenges with that,” Dongworth said.

Holding firefighters at the scene while waiting for paramedic response is a growing challenge. Dongworth said, though not often, fire crews are asked to provide medical first response for 30 minutes or more. Quite often, they are left waiting on scene for medical crews. There’s a domino effect to that.

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

“It also increases the stress on the system because the longer our unit is tied up at a call, just as the same as with their units, then it compromises subsequent responses that are required across the city.”

He said the more units tied up at medical calls, it slows down the rest of their call system.

In a 2019 story done by LiveWire Calgary, the province said the Calgary Fire Department’s medical first response was done voluntarily.  The city also hadn’t signed up for the Municipal First Response (MFR) program. 

Dongworth said the city is now signed up.

Much of the delay in enrolling was due to the cost of administering medical care. It was being taken on by the city with no compensation from the province, Dongworth said.

Commitment to anti-racism, diversity and equity

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

To address it, they’ve formed a joint human relations committee. It’s a partnership with the union and is made up of underrepresented members. That group is helping set the direction for equity programs at the Calgary Fire Department, Chief Dongworth said.

“What we have chosen to do is to engage folks who are deserving and seeking that equity to give us guidance on the things we need to change because we don’t always see that,” he said.  

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

They aren’t shedding the responsibility, he said, they just want to focus the work on the people.

He said they still have a long way to go.

“This isn’t something that you can kind of flick a light switch and change overnight,” he said.

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

Climate commitments

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

The City of Calgary made its climate emergency declaration, 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 water used at their training academy. After spray training, water is drained into a pond (filtration) where dive trainers can practice.  It goes through a natural filtration again for firefighters to reuse.

They have solar panels on buildings, use biodiesel on many trucks and are exploring electric fire trucks.  They’ve outfitted 30 fire engines with smaller auxiliary power units. Now they can shut down the larger emitting engines on scene.

They also have an anti-idling policy.

“This is an emergency as the city has declared and we need to do more and we’re looking at every way we can to support reducing our greenhouse gases and reducing our impact on the environment,” he said.

Much greater interest in the Calgary fire department

One of the things they’ll start in earnest this year is a focus on underground fire and rescue training. The construction of Calgary’s $5.5 billion Green Line is slated for the spring. Soon enough, they’ll have to be experts on underground response in a relatively short timeframe, he said.

The big challenge remains the ongoing pandemic, Chief Dongworth said. Not only in terms of what they are able to do, but what they can’t.

They’ve had to halt programs such as reading to kids, school fire drills, home fire inspection and safety visits. There are no longer fire station tours.

This year, they’ll add 56 new firefighter positions. They’ll be able to launch their fire officer training program. He said it’s an exciting time.

Dongworth didn’t want to criticize past councils. He did say this recently elected council seems to have a greater interest in fire service.

The influx of budget cash shows it, Dongworth said.

“That’s quite exciting in terms of perhaps being able to make sure our service stays relevant, stays sustainable into the future,” he said.

About Darren Krause 1054 Articles
Journalist, husband, father, golfer, writer, painter, video gamer, gardener, amateur botanist, dreamer, realist... never in that order.

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