British Columbia's first responders are struggling to deal with the 'crisis situation' that has developed since the arrival of fentanyl.

The greatest challenge facing paramedics, police officers and fire crew is understanding how to deal with a drug that can be almost as deadly for the person handling it, as it is for the user. 

"Fentanyl is such a potent and dangerous synthetic drug. It really has changed everything on how we deal with drugs," said Corporal Eric Boechler with the RCMP's Clandestine Lab Enforcement and Response Team.

"Virtually any opportunity a first responder may have to come into contact with these drugs for any sort of investigation or overdose situation, as much as those are dangerous to the people taking drugs, it's also dangerous to us as first responders."

Limiting skin contact

Police officers, coroners, fire fighters, corrections officers and paramedics gathered in Victoria Tuesday to discuss best practices on how to handle the drug during a seizure, at a clandestine lab or during an overdose.

Fake Oxycontin pill fentanyl

RCMP display a confiscated fake oxycontin pill laced with fentanyl. (Richard Zussman/CBC News)

First responders are also working very closely with health officials as part of the response to the recent fentanyl epidemic. 

One of the major concerns is skin contact with fentanyl. First responders are being advised to wear skin protection including gloves when interacting with a possible overdose victim.

Authorities are also wearing full body covering hazmat suits when investigating drug labs where the drug may have been used.  

There were 308 apparent illicit drug overdose deaths in the province from January to May 2016 — a 75 per cent increase from the same time frame last year.

The provincial government declared a public health emergency in April connected to the rise in fentanyl related deaths and this has allowed health officials greater access to paramedic and police information.

"These groups are coming together to tackle this overdose crisis less as a law enforcement crisis, and more as how a disease would be tackled — a disease that is causing a large amount of fatalities to our citizens," said Victoria police S/Sgt. Conor King.

The province has also announced five new supervised injections sites to help prevent more overdose deaths. The locations will not be released until they are approved.

Stopping the 'death machine' 

Enforcement officials are also increasingly concerned about the illegal manufacturing of counterfeit pills that are designed to look like oxycontin, but are laced with fentanyl to provide a high for users.

Most users have no idea they are consuming the deadly opioid because it is hidden within the counterfeit pill. 

Pill press machines, known as death machines, are being shipped from abroad including China and can produce 1,700 pills an hour. 

A number of the machines have been confiscated in coordinated busts but because the machines are not regulated or banned by the federal government it is hard to stop them from getting into the country. 

"There are no regulations in Canada for the importation of pill press machines. So what the individual does is order them online from overseas than just waits for the arrival of the machine," said King. 

"Government agencies are able to monitor the arrival, but are not able to intercept them."