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Firefighters faced more calls, longer waits in year two of pandemic


Fire chief Steve Dongworth said increases in calls reflect the current state of society — one that is fighting both the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the opioid crisis

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Calgary firefighters faced the highest call volumes in the city’s history and spent more time at those calls in 2021, says fire Chief Steve Dongworth.

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The Calgary Fire Department responded to 58 per cent more overdose and poisoning calls than in 2020, 39 per cent more opioid- and fentanyl-related calls, and administered 49 per cent more naloxone in 2021. They also responded to a 57 per cent increase in psychiatric behaviour and suicide attempt-related calls when compared to 2020, and a 13 per cent increase in pandemic-related calls.

Dongworth said the number of times crews responded to fires also increased this year.

“We’ve seen an increase in call volume this year compared to last year of about 14 per cent, which is very significant. It’s the busiest Calgary Fire Department has ever been in its history,” he said.

Dongworth said that increase in calls reflects the current state of society, one that is fighting both the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the opioid crisis. He attributed the increase in structural fires to the fact that many people continue to work and spend more time at home amid the ongoing pandemic.

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Responding to those high call volumes is a smaller-than-average workforce. The Calgary Firefighters Association recently asked city council for  additional funds to hire 56 new firefighters and additional training for staff. Council agreed to provide an additional $10 million.

Dongworth said the department currently has enough members to cover shifts, as well as a buffer of members to cover vacations and people calling in sick. However, that buffer has shrunk recently, he said.

“It’s not sufficient, particularly during a pandemic, to allow us to do everything we’d like to do without bringing people on overtime, which is obviously not the best scenario,” said Dongworth. “What council invested in was increasing that buffer, which will help us with the amount of training now required by the province, as well as get some other things done with less disruption.”

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Matt Osborne, president of the Alberta Firefighters Association, pleaded the case for more funding to council after he took up the lead role earlier this year. Speaking to Postmedia in November, he said his priority in his new role is bringing various stakeholders together to fix the strain on first responders, including EMS staffing.

“It’s at a breaking point. It’s actually broken, it’s not even at a breaking point anymore, it’s been broken for far too long,” said Osborne, referring to the current EMS system in Alberta. “We need to focus on that service, then we need to continue that conversation through the system because it’s not just one area, it’s all areas.”

Matt Osborne, President of Alberta Firefighters Association, poses for a photo outside station #6. Saturday, November 20, 2021.
Matt Osborne, President of Alberta Firefighters Association, poses for a photo outside station #6. Saturday, November 20, 2021. Photo by Brendan Miller/Postmedia

In Alberta, EMS services are funded and operated by the province while fire crews are funded by municipalities. However, Osborne said that in some rural areas there are no dedicated EMS teams, and in those circumstances local firefighters who are trained as paramedics will respond to scenes first and care for patients until AHS members can respond.

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Osborne said the crossover in operations creates a complex system and that to fix the current situation, all decision-makers need to come to the same table and start to work on solutions. He said he wants to help facilitate those talks and bring forth the perspective of front-line workers now that he is president of the association.

“There are a lot of Band-Aids that we can put on this. But that’s all we’re going to be doing right now. We need to come up with a solution that is best for the patient and best for Albertans that are in emergency,” said Osborne.

A lack of EMS resources has been in the spotlight recently after a Calgary paramedic had a medical emergency and died when there were no other units able to respond.

An ambulance waits outside the ambulance bay at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary on Monday, December 6, 2021.
An ambulance waits outside the ambulance bay at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary on Monday, December 6, 2021. Photo by Gavin Young/Postmedia

Dongworth said the strain on the EMS system has led to firefighters being on calls for a longer amount of time as they wait for medical professionals to arrive.

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“We’re often on scene for many minutes before Alberta Health Services arrive. And during the pandemic, the number of those minutes has grown longer at times,” said Dongworth. “If we are on calls for longer, our units become less available for the next call, because we’re dealing with certainly 60,000 or so calls a year. Inevitably, there’ll be other calls. So it does challenge us.”

Dongworth said the relationship between firefighters and paramedics continues to be strong.

Despite the challenges of the past year, Dongworth said morale continues to be high among firefighters. He said he believes that is reflected in a recent survey that showed 99 per cent of Calgarians are satisfied with the work of the fire service.

Moving into 2022, Dongworth said he will be watching call volumes once again to see if they continue trending upwards. He said the department will also advocate for additional funding in the next four-year budget cycle to continue to address staffing concerns.

dshort@postmedia.com

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