Edmonton’s fire chief reflect’s opioid crisis, fire-related deaths and mental health in 2021

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Drug overdoses, preventable fires, and the fire-related deaths of some of the city’s most vulnerable residents are top of mind for Edmonton’s fire chief at the close of another year under the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Chief Joe Zatylny, who assumed command in June 2020, said he’s settling into the role despite unexpected challenges including a “dramatic increase” in opioid-related calls for assistance.

“This is something that is impacting our members, it’s impacting the public, and we need to better co-ordinate … and look for ways to share information so that we can get better outcomes than we’re seeing today,” he said.

In a year end interview with Postmedia, Zatylny said 2021 was another busy and difficult year for Edmonton Fire Rescue Services (EFRS), but his staff remain resilient in their efforts to serve the public.

‘Dramatic increase’ in overdose calls

According to EFRS, crews responded to 5,158 overdose calls in 2021 by Nov. 30, which is more than double the 2,439 responses in 2020, and nearly five times the 1,139 responses in 2019.

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Most of the calls for assistance have been focused in and around Edmonton’s core, Zatylny said, including the McCauley, Downtown and Central McDougall neighbourhoods, but that doesn’t mean other parts of the city are unaffected.

“Some of our efforts need to focus on how we are reaching and how we are supporting everyone in the community,” he said.

In December, city fire stations opened their doors to people with opioid addictions, offering immediate access to addiction treatment and resources by connecting them with a Virtual Opioid Dependency Program.

Fire frequency in northeast Edmonton

By Nov. 30, EFRS saw 886 deliberately set fires in 2021 (a category expanded that year to include suspected arsons), which caused an estimated $8.5 million in damage.

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Earlier that month, the department also reported an increasing number of intentionally set fires in buildings throughout the city, as well as an increasing number of fires in northeast Edmonton, which saw 281 fire-related events in the six months between May and October, and 148 in the six months prior.

In response, the department is collaborating with Edmonton police and Alberta Health Services as part of a joint effort to proactively address the problem, Zatylny said.

“What we’re seeing is that we are all collecting different information, and that the sharing of information is now leading to refining our strategies and the necessary expertise to help solve some of these issues,” he added.

According to EFRS, seven people died in connection with fires over the past year, four of whom were experiencing homelessness and were found either outdoors or in abandoned buildings.

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Besides supporting unhoused Edmontonians who’ve been displaced, the chief said, the department is looking for ways to educate these vulnerable residents on fire safety and help ensure vacant properties are secure.

“Because there shouldn’t be people in them,” Zatylny said. “It’s as innocent as people trying to stay warm or trying to eat.”

Preventable fires on the rise

Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30 of 2021, the department responded to 133 cooking fires that resulted in an estimated $4.8 million in property loss — just over double the 65 cooking fires seen over the same period in 2020.

There were also 115 fires connected to smoker’s materials (up from 73 in 2020) responsible for an estimated $4.6 million in damage.

Zatylny said the latest figures are “alarmingly high,” and that a third of the fires seen in the city are preventable.

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While outreach efforts have been a challenge for the department during the second year of the pandemic, one of the priorities for 2022 involves finding ways for fire crews to connect with communities.

“We need them out there, checking home smoke alarms, and passing out fire safety information, and talking to the public and connecting and having station tours,” he said, “and it just hasn’t been happening.”

New mental health supports and training

Over the past year, Zatylny said, the department made changes to its recruitment program, which now includes mental health and resiliency training.

“What we know about the impact of this profession is that it’s accumulative as much as it is acute,” he said. “And so it could be that call, which is so difficult, that creates trauma and (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the long term, or it could be the many, many difficult calls that create that stress or trauma for our staff.”

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Designed by Wounded Warriors Canada, a mental health service provider for first responders and veterans, this supplemental training aims to teach recruits about stressors on the job and how to cope with them.

“Regardless of the calls they go to, they will have a better layer of resilience and mental health protection for their careers,” Zatylny said.

Moreover, the chief added, the department has been working with the province to develop an app that provides both frontline and supporting staff with quick access to training and treatment.

Going into 2022, Zatylny, the department plans to reduce the stigma around mental health problems and focus on getting staff members the support and treatment they need when they need it.

hissawi@postmedia.com

@hamdiissawi

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