As the opioid crisis and COVID-19 continue to wreak havoc on communities across the country, Port Alberni Fire Department is facing a record number of calls with a staggering 24 per cent increase in medical emergencies from last year.
Firefighters in the community responded to more than 2,400 calls in 2022. The number of fires and motor vehicle crashes is similar to previous years, but last year the department responded to more than 1,600 medical calls — up by nearly 470 from 2021.
“It certainly means that we’re stretched thinner than we ever have been. A 24 percent increase is pretty dramatic,” said Chief Mike Owens of the department.
“I think it’s primarily attributable to the opioid crisis that we have, COVID that’s occurring and the staffing challenges BCEHS is having resulting in us responding to lower acuity calls because there’s a delay on their side,” said Owens.
Owens says some people have also not accessed health in the same way during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to more emergency health issues.
With firefighters stretched thin and struggling to keep up with the demand, the department is considering upgrading medical training and may even need to hire additional staff in order to continue providing essential services to the community.
“If the call volume continues to go up obviously like any other department, if the demand grows, then we may have to look at how we address that which could include staffing down the road,” said Owens.
Port Alberni’s Mayor Sharie Minions said her city is not unique in seeing more medical calls.
“I think like so many communities we’re struggling with a lot of social issues and our fire department luckily is there to keep people safe and help with those issues when they do arise,” said Minions. “But it’s certainly put a strain on the system and is challenging every day to keep enough resources in-house to help the people who need help.”
Emergency Health Services says its call volume went up in Port Alberni by 5.4 per cent for 2022 compared to a rise for all of Vancouver Island of 1.7 percent.
Provincially, its calls decreased by less than one per cent. BCEHS handles more than half a million calls each year province-wide.