A Vancouver Island fire chief says a toxic supply of street drugs is putting a heavy burden on first responders.

Campbell River’s Thomas Doherty noted that there have been times where firefighters have had to save the same drug user more than once in the same day.

“That wears on the individuals. I can’t speak for the paramedics, but they’re under a huge load right now,” Doherty said. “There’s not enough paramedics out on the street to handle what’s going on.”

More people have died from overdoses over the first eight months of the year, than all of 2019.

With that in mind, Doherty said the province needs to “step up and put the resources in place” as the opioid crisis continues.

“We’re heading in a real bad direction when it comes to the health services on the street right now, and we’re here to help and support our paramedics locally, and certainly support more resources for them,” he added. “But at the same time we want to make sure we’re giving the citizens of Campbell River the best possible care that they can receive.”

Doherty said calls for overdoses are becoming a regular occurrence.

“We do attend a number of medical calls through the first responder program and the Province of B.C.,” Doherty said. “Our firefighters are trained to the EMR (Emergency Medical Responder) level, and we also have a need to have medically trained staff anyway in the first department because of our occupation class. So having that ability to utilize that skill in the field to assist in our community has been hugely beneficial.”

Doherty said the department has had a number of saves throughout the year. He said knowing how to use naloxone, and quickly, is a life-saving skill.

“Without any oxygen, after about four minutes, you start to have cell death, tissue death, and then organ death and it comes to a point where it becomes irreversible so getting that urgent medical care as quickly as possible is paramount,” he said. “And the way our fire stations are situated in the city, we’re able to get to a lot of these calls before the ambulance does. We’re starting to see that more and more of that now as it’s getting busier in the City of Campbell River.”

He says there have been a lot of incidents lately where local ambulances are tied up and they’re having to wait for ones from neighbouring communities,  including from as far away as Cumberland and Courtenay.

Earlier this week, firefighters answered a call, and found four people together, all collapsed from an overdose.

Firefighters administered overdose antidote naloxone by injection to one of the victims, and an RCMP officer rescued another with the nasal spray version.

Doherty said the combined effort of protective services (firefighters, police and paramedics) helped save those four people. 

While saving lives isn’t something first responders take for granted, Doherty noted that it’s part of the job: “Every call is different. You just don’t know what the next one is going to entail, and it’s nice to be able to make a difference. Obviously once we hand the patients over to the paramedics or transport to hospital, we don’t always get the end results of some of those, but when we do, it’s nice to hear the good news stories.

And when we have a successful resuscitation, it means a lot to the firefighters, here.”