‘Ottawa’ Opioid Crisis: Frustrated Ottawa Firefighters Left Waiting for Naloxone
With Ottawa witnessing a spike in drug overdoses, some firefighters are frustrated it is taking so long to equip them with a life-saving treatment.
Months after Ottawa Fire Services began working on supplying firefighters with kits of naloxone, they are purchased, stacked up and ready for use, but training has yet to begin.
That means firefighters who arrive first on the scene of an overdose, as they frequently do, are unable to administer the drug that blocks the effects of opioids and can revive overdose victims. Earlier this year, firefighters arrived first at the scene when a Kanata teenager died of an overdose.
To add to the frustration among some firefighters, naloxone kits can be picked up by members of the public in local pharmacies and people can be trained on how to use them in minutes. Kits were flying off the shelves at local pharmacies as concerned parents and others equipped themselves after the death of 14-year-old Chloe Kotval in February.
Seven more people required emergency treatment for overdoses Sunday, just days after a spike of 15 overdoses in 72 hours raised alarm among local health officials about a new, dangerous supply of fentanyl on the streets in Ottawa late last week.
Ottawa fire Chief Gerry Pingitore said he expects training for firefighters on naloxone to begin in May. He said training will initially concentrate on fire stations in zones where overdoses are more likely. He said the plan is to train an entire station at once and have them begin using naloxone as soon as training is done.
Firefighters will be administering a nasal spray, when they do get access to naloxone kits, but Pingitore said training will not just cover using the kit itself, but will re-certify the service’s 1,500 firefighters on airway management, CPR and oxygen delivery.
“We want to take time to ensure the training is done right.”
Unlike members of the public, who are protected under what is known as the Good Samaritan Law when they administer naloxone, it is considered a medical act when firefighters do so, which requires proper training, the chief said.
Right now, paramedics are the only first responders in the city who widely carry naloxone kits. Members of the city police drug unit are currently the only Ottawa police officers carrying naloxone. Police Chief Charles Bordeleau said Monday the force is “in the midst of examining a plan to expand the issuance to front-line members,” but doesn’t yet have a timeline.
Bordeleau said the recent spike in overdoses is “very troubling” but something the force, with knowledge of the movement of fentanyl, has been predicting for some time.
The chief said that while the causes of the recent spate of overdoses haven’t yet been determined, “drugs like fentanyl and counterfeit pills are always suspected in these circumstances.”
The drug unit is investigating the overdoses to establish where the drugs came from, he said.
Bordeleau said that education is key to informing the community about the dangers of drug use, but from an enforcement perspective, the police have executed search warrants and taken large numbers of pills off the streets.
The force is also working closely with public health officials and hospitals to identify “any geographic trends or patterns that we see so that we can come in and do some enforcement,” he said. Police have yet to determine any concrete trends or patterns but Bordeleau said “There’s every indication that there’s been an increase in the shipment of fentanyl in our community and people are reeling from those adverse effects.”
Carrying naloxone is something Mark Barnes, owner of Respect Rx Pharamasave and a member of the city of Ottawa’s overdose task force, wishes more members of the public would do.
Barnes said the recent surge in overdoses in the city is worrisome. “We are worried about what is next.”
He said there has been an increase in the number of people seeking treatment at the drug-treatment program he is affiliated with, which he attributes to media attention and users’ concerns about the danger of drugs on the street right now.
The city has not seen a decrease in overdoses since earlier in the year when two deaths raised wide concerns, said Barnes. But there have not been further deaths, which he attributes to the wide use of naloxone.
“Naloxone is helping.”
Still, he said, people must remain vigilant.
He recommends that teenagers have a “designated driver” when they go out, who remains sober, has a naloxone kit and is prepared to use it.
He said he sometimes gets “push back” from parents when he tells teens to equip themselves with naloxone kits, but says “the other option is the morgue.”
Opioid users range from heroin addicts, to members of the working class and professionals, to teenagers who are experimenting, he said.
The worry, he said, is that there is often no time to get to the hospital when someone overdoses. “The brutal end point is what scares people.”
Bordeleau, for his part, cautioned against a false security of naloxone or other opioid-antidote drugs.
“There seems to be an attitude out there that’s developing that as long as you’ve got naloxone, you’re OK. That’s extremely dangerous,” he said. “Any consuming of these types of pills could lead to death, as we’ve seen tragically in the past.”
The National Capital Area Crime Stoppers branch also announced Monday that it would be extending its fentanyl tip program to the end of August. The program was originally slated to wrap up at the end of May, but, citing an increase in tips to the line, will extend the program offering $2,000 for any information that leads to arrests for the production and/or distribution of the lethal drug.
Meanwhile Peter Kennedy, president of the Ottawa Professional Firefighters Association, acknowledged firefighters are anxious to get access to naloxone kits.
“We are pretty anxious to get it going, because we think it can really make a difference.”
— With files from Shaamini Yogaretnam