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Calgary Fire Department expands unit dedicated to helping those suffering from medical emergencies

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The Calgary Fire Department (CFD) will now be able to help more people suffering from medical emergencies thanks to the addition of a second medical response unit.

Medical response units are smaller vehicles, staffed by two firefighters, dedicated solely to responding to medical calls like shortness of breath, cardiac arrest and overdoses.

The medical response unit was reintroduced in 2023 after council brought back funding in the 2023-2026 budget.

It operates out of Station 1 in the downtown core, and responded to almost 6,000 calls in its first year.

That makes it the busiest vehicle in the CFD fleet. 

Because medical response units are dedicated solely to medical calls, having them frees up fire engines and other heavy apparatus to respond to other emergencies.

"Fire trucks are designed to fight fires. Bringing a lighter vehicle instead with medically trained staff and equipment will help make sure that we get the right resources to the right kinds of calls quickly," said Chief Steve Dongworth in a news release.

"By having a dedicated medical response unit in our busiest stations, we are ensuring we are still able to meet our response times."

This second medical response unit will operate out of Station 2 in the Beltline.

According to the fire department, it's anticipated the medical response units will collectively respond to some 10,000 calls this year.

The fire department says staff responded to 52,000 medical calls in 2023, up 18 per cent from 2022.

Many of them were for cardiac arrests and respiratory distress. 

But there’s one other medical event that takes up a large chunk of total call volume. 

"This is a reflection of the ongoing challenges of a drug poisoning crisis," Dr. Jennifer Jackson with the University of Calgary’s Nursing Faculty said.

"The reason why we’re having so many emergency calls is because we don’t have enough spaces to provide support for people, we don’t have affordable housing and we don’t have adequate supervised consumption sites."

From January to October of last year, 1,692 Albertans died because of toxic supply. 

When comparing only the first 10 months of that year, 2023 has a higher number of deaths than any other year in provincial history. 

In addition, it appears more and more of those events are happening out in the open.

Government data shows 43 per cent of toxic drug deaths took place in a public setting in the third quarter of the year.

"We need to rapidly change our approach to drug policy," Jackson said.

"The recovery basis in our province has a place, but it needs to be one of a complement of options."

"We have seen the opioid epidemic driving that number (of calls) up for sure," Dongworth added.

"(This new unit) can defibrillate, we can provide oxygen, we can provide cervical spine support and we can administer naloxone."

The medical response unit vehicles are not designed for patient transport.

Instead, firefighters remain on-scene with patients until EMS arrive. 

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