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350 in 2021: Penticton fire crews see significant increase in overdose calls

Police and bylaw also overwhelmed with mental health and addictions issues
Penticton Fire truck in action. (Contributed)

Penticton fire department attended seven times more overdose calls in 2021 compared to the year before.

Fire chief Larry Watkinson was in front of the city’s safety and security committee Monday morning, to explain that they have seen a sizable increase in medical calls, mainly overdoses in this past year.

“We’ve seen 1,000 more calls for service in 2021 for a total of 3,300 calls with a major increase in medical emergencies,” said Watkinson.

In 2020, the fire department attended 48 overdoses. In 2021, they attended 350, he said.

Some of the increase is due to how they report overdoses, as they used to classify a lot of overdoses as ‘man down’ because that is how the call would come in.

“We would get a call of a person passed out under a tree and classify it as man down when it was an overdose. In 2021, those 350 overdoses were witnessed. We are still working on ways to better track and categorize,” he added.

For the past two weeks on the daily incident dispatch list, Penticton firefighters attend at least three overdoses a day.

On Monday, firefighters attended to a man overdosing who had already received five cans of Narcan.

Ambulances were called out to 748 overdoses last year, nearly double the amount from the year before of 474 call-outs.

This high number speaks to the opioid crisis and toxic drug supply going on in the community and around the province, says BC Emergency Health Services (BC EHS).

READ MORE: Overdose crisis in Penticton

Bylaw Services in the city are facing similar increases for medical calls and social issues.

“We had 393 calls for service in 2021 and in 2020 it was 268,” said Tina Mercier, city bylaw services supervisor.

The bylaw department is in the middle of hiring eight new staff to help handle the caseload.

“We are seeing a lot of new faces in town and we are trying to figure out why they are landing here and where they are coming from,” said Mercier.

Last week, Penticton RCMP Supt. Brian Hunter was in front of the city council to say they are dealing with a medical crisis on the streets where a significant amount of their resources are spent on dealing with mental health and addictions issues.

Penticton police deal with twice the calls for mental health than Kelowna, Kamloops and Vernon, according to Hunter.

In 2019, Penticton RCMP saw 1,473 calls for services related to mental health and addictions. In 2020, that number jumped 19 per cent. In 2021, Penticton officers went to a record 2,240 calls for service for mental health, which is six mental health calls per day on average.

READ MORE: “Officers are getting exhausted”: Penticton RCMP dealing with medical crisis on the streets

Monique Tamminga

About the Author: Monique Tamminga

Monique brings 20 years of award-winning journalism experience to the role of editor at the Penticton Western News. Of those years, 17 were spent working as a senior reporter and acting editor with the Langley Advance Times.
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