Smaller SUVs help firefighters keep up with growing Beltline calls

The smaller, lighter vehicles will be used for emergency medical calls where traditional fire trucks are not required.

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The Calgary Fire Department is deploying smaller, lighter vehicles to more quickly reach a growing number of medical emergencies in tight spaces on the Beltline.

The SUVs will respond to calls when traditional fire trucks are not required, freeing them up for other emergencies, said Fire Chief Steve Dongworth.

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The growing demand for emergency medical services has put a strain on the department’s resources, affecting the ability to respond quickly to other emergencies, he said.

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“By having a dedicated medical response unit at our busiest stations, we ensure we can meet our response times,” Dongworth said.

This is the second of two units operating in the city and will operate out of Beltline Fire Station No. 2. The first unit was introduced at Downtown Fire Station 1 in 2023, responding to nearly 6,000 calls in its inaugural year. Both units are funded from the department’s 2023-26 budget.

Firefighter Mike Kopp responded to an exposure call Tuesday morning downtown with the medical response SUV and said a traditional fire truck would have had trouble maneuvering in the alley.

“It’s not easy to maneuver around (a fire truck), so the ambulance has to get in, so I parked this (the SUV) in a parking lot and moved it out of the way,” Kopp said.

Calgary Fire Chief Steve Dongworth
Calgary Fire Chief Steve Dongworth says calls for cardiac arrests, overdoses and respiratory distress have skyrocketed. Gavin Young/Postmedia

There has been increased demand for medical interventions for incidents such as cardiac arrests, overdoses and respiratory distress, Dongworth said, accounting for more than 55 percent of the total call volume for 2023. CFD responded to 52,000 medical calls in 2023, an increase from 18 percent. cent during 2022.

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Dongworth said the opioid epidemic is a contributing factor. Opioid-related calls in 2023 were 45 percent higher than in 2022: 4,765 versus 6,889.

“The center unit was the busiest vehicle in our fleet and I expect our new unit to be almost as busy,” he said.

The fire department broke its record for total calls in 2023, with about 94,000, up 15 percent from 2022. Dongworth says if the trend continues, calls could surpass 100,000 in 2024.

“That stresses the system, there are more calls, that means there are fewer units available,” he said.

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Each unit, staffed by two firefighters, is designed to allow first responders to remain with the patient until Alberta Health Services EMS arrives to assist with patient care and transportation if necessary.

The units are not designed to transport patients, but are stocked with medical supplies and tools, including naloxone kits, a defibrillator, cleaning kits, exposure blankets and more.

“We support Alberta Health Service EMS very effectively, but certainly they are the experts in the field,” Dongworth said.

He said that despite having less training than paramedics, firefighters have the appropriate medical training for the type of work they do.

With files from Matt Scace, Dean Pilling and Scott Strasser

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