Fire crews in Port Alberni are seeing a dramatic rise in call volume, and while the fire chief is hopeful numbers will drop in the new year, he says it doesn’t appear to be headed that way.
“So it’s certainly more calls than we’ve ever seen before,” said Fire Chief Mike Owens, noting that between 2019 and 2023, the Port Alberni Fire Department saw an 80 per cent increase in calls for service.
Owens sums it up as a “sharp” and “substantial” increase that’s ultimately straining resources, so he took to the department’s Facebook page on Monday to share the stats.
“Last year was a significant bump over the year before, and it does seem to be continuing along that trajectory,” he told CHEK News. “There’s hope, of course, that those numbers curve, but we’re not seeing that on a day-to-day basis yet.”
Owens says fire crews responded to 2,823 incidents last year, compared to 2,459 calls in 2022, 1,989 in 2021, 1,281 in 2020 and 1,572 in 2019.
It’s a similar situation in other Vancouver Island municipalities. Last year, a new fire station opened in Saanich to respond to the growing service demands there, while Nanaimo Fire Rescue said call volume for its staff was continuing to increase.
Yet, some calls aren’t what they shape up to be.
“There are certainly calls that we receive that end up being false alarms, and sometimes they’re automatic alarm activations,” explained Owens, “while other times it’s somebody that’s driving down the road and sees something that they perceive to be one thing and when we get on scene it’s something else.”
He says, however, that these calls are still valued.
“We always appreciate people erring on the side of caution and calling something in. It’s always easier to stand down resources instead of waiting till things really escalate.”
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In 2023, for example, just 45 of the 2,823 calls in Port Alberni were for structure fires, while 144 were for motor vehicle incidents. A whopping 1,912 calls were for medical incidents, representing a 130 per cent increase between 2019 and 2023, says Owens.
“If you look at our prevalence of structure fires, it’s relatively static over the last handful of years. Motor vehicle incidents are the same,” he said. “But where we’re seeing an increase in the medical first responders.”
Overdose calls a daily occurrence, says fire chief
Many of these calls are overdoses, according to the fire chief, who says “the opioid crisis is affecting Port Alberni just as it is many other” municipalities.
“We’re typically responding to calls that involve an overdose every day now,” said Owens.
“We’ll get a responder call for somebody experiencing an overdose, and we’ll arrive on scene, assess the patient and give them naloxone if it hasn’t already been administered. Or if there’s been a period of time between the last naloxone dose, we’ll give them naloxone, and then we’ll provide O2 therapy and rescue breathing if required.
“In some extreme cases, we’ll provide CPR as well.”
Nanaimo Fire Rescue, meanwhile, has seen a similar increase. Last November, the fire department said it had responded to about 1,500 overdose calls so far in 2023, which was more than double the number of calls the year prior.
At the time, Nanaimo’s Mayor Leonard Krog told CHEK News the call volume shows that B.C. needs a new approach to combatting the opioid crisis.
“It’s a horrendous number,” said Krog.
“Clearly, what’s been done in the last few years has not worked. I don’t see or don’t sense there is much public support for significant increases in safe supply.”
- Nanaimo Fire Rescue is seeing a record number of drug overdoses in 2023
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Owens has noticed other trends since the pandemic.
“Over the period of time the COVID-19 pandemic set in, we’ve seen an increase in respiratory illness over that period of time as well,” he said.
“And then again, anecdotally, we’ve heard that some folks who would have been engaging with their physician early on pre-pandemic perhaps delayed those initial physician check-ins, and then we hear that by the time they’re engaging with the health system, it’s progressed to a point where they’re calling paramedics and us to assist.”
So, in turn, calls are starting to pile up.
“We are starting to see situations now where staking of calls used to be something that was exceptionally rare, and now it’s happening on a more frequent basis,” said Owens.
“We’ll be on scene on one call, and then we’ll have other calls waiting in the queue after we clear that initial call.”
Now, the fire department is working to combat the increase.
“We have the same number of positions as we did pre-pandemic,” added Owens. “We’re not currently hiring, but there are discussions that we’re having internally right now on how to manage this influx of calls.”