BC’s Toxic Drug Crisis: Still Not a Real Emergency
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BC’s Toxic Drug Crisis: Still Not a Real Emergency

Seven years and over 11,000 deaths after the public health emergency, Toxic Drug Crisis, was declared, it is still not listed as an active emergency by the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness. A list of active emergencies, found on BC’s Emergency Information page, includes at the time of writing, among other events, “Evacuation Order for 1 property”, no mention of a crisis which has killed thousands.

BC has a robust system of emergency management which provides provincial supports, including information coordination, resource supply and funding. Exclusion from the list of active provincial emergencies is reducing our ability to address the impacts of the toxic drug crisis.

Information like comprehensive impact assessments, including not just the number of people who died, but the number who were treated for, and the number of paramedics and amount of overtime paid responding to, Toxic Drug Crisis calls. We would also be able to determine the impact of calls with delayed response times when paramedics are involved in a call stemming from the toxic drug crisis, which in geographically spread-out communities with limited ambulance service may significantly impact response times for other calls.

Resources like experts who can help implement solutions, staff who could provide backstop coverage for services left understaffed as the community resources are engaged in responding to the toxic drug crisis. Material resources, like rapid response units for ambulance or psychological first aid, could be stood up and allocated according to need.

Funding dollars could pay for to overtime and buy supplies to staff an emergency operations centre or provide emergency supports to survivors and those impacted by the toxic drug crisis.

What Aren’t We Doing?

Each day, the impact of the emergency is spread across the province, few, if any, municipalities have sufficient impact on any day, or even a week, to declare a local emergency. Without the support of a tracked provincial emergency, communities struggle to demonstrate sufficient impact to make local emergency declarations.

Instead of one large scene, this emergency has many scenes, each attended by a small number of responders. We don’t have Incident Commanders coordinating agencies on the scene reporting into an Emergency Operations Centre. We don’t even have any Emergency Operations Centres tracking this emergency.

No local, regional or provincial Emergency Operations Centres coordinating information about the situation and organizing effective response and recovery operations. Instead, we have a steady supply of reports from the Office of Vital Statistics on the lives lost to the toxic drug crisis.

For seven years we have a declared emergency without the systemic supports we know work successfully to reduce the impact of emergencies.

What Could Change?

With inclusion on the Emergency Management BC list of active emergencies not only would funding be available to municipalities for coordination, response and recovery operations, but also provincial coordination of information, response and recovery operations would be enhanced.

Activation of non-governmental agencies, and funding to support their operations, would be available. Municipalities could open Emergency Operations Centres to support their response to the toxic drug crisis as it affects their community.

Emergency operations centres reduce the impact of emergencies by coordinating response and recovery. Departments and agencies involved are brought together and everyone is kept in the loop of the impacts (problems) and activities (solutions). This allows for three major improvements.

One, they have as much notice as possible on downstream impacts. For example, when an ambulance is transporting a person impacted by the emergency to a hospital, not only can the hospital be advised, the agency coordinating family supports can prepare a volunteer to meet with the family. And, in the event the person impacted is a caregiver, arrangements to support the family’s loss of income or provide alternate caregiving while the person recovers and support the family through the loss should the person die. Response and recovery support could be extended to survivors, not just those lucky enough to survive exposure to the toxic drug supply, but also the family and friends impacted by the incident. Supports, like psychological first aid, may prevent a spiral from grief over the loss of a loved one, to being exposed to the very danger that took their loved one.

Two, having these response activities coordinated through an Emergency Operations Centre allows for a more comprehensive calculation of the financial impact of the event, in both direct loss and in response and recovery supports. Not only would emergency medical costs be captured, but also the impact on other support systems, like income assistance and food banks. Right now, we know the emergency is affecting families, it is taking those who provide income and those who provide daily care. We don’t know the scale of that impact.

Third, coordinating many departments and agencies from a focused centre allows for synergies and emergent solutions. People see problems in such a way that it seems the solutions are precisely what they already happen to have. That is, to a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. By putting many people, with many tools, in the same place, the many problem descriptions lead to better solutions being applied than any one group could apply. The corollary: something needs pounding to the person who has a hammer, is also mitigated. By bringing together all departments and agencies, we may be able to change from hammering ambulances to morgues and start solving the underlying problem.

Listing the Toxic Drug Crisis as an Emergency with EMBC would allow communities, First Nations reserves and municipalities, to access emergency funds, resources and other supports to address the particular impacts, mitigations, community response and recovery efforts needed in their local community.

When the Toxic Drug Crisis was first declared a Public Health Emergency, back in 2016, there were few mechanisms to support public health emergencies within Canada’s Emergency Management Framework, which limited Emergency Management BC’s ability to include the crisis within their mandate. In 2020 a global pandemic demonstrated how the framework applies in Public Health emergencies across Canada. Now Emergency Management BC has, at the very least, a previous example to use as a guide for supporting the Toxic Drug Crisis as a Public Health emergency.

It is time to bring BC’s Toxic Drug Crisis into BC’s Emergency Management framework and allow EMBC to support communities undertaking the preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery measures best suited to address the Toxic Drug Crisis in their community.

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