'There's definitely a level of fear': first responders gather at fentanyl workshop

Nearly 200 first responders gathered at the Justice Institute of British Columbia to learn more about the risks drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil pose for first responders in the field.

Police, firefighters and paramedics discuss latest in fentanyl trends

RCMP Sgt. Eric Boechler holds a naloxone injection kit, used to reverse opioid overdoses. Behind him, a confiscated pill press sits, ready for a pill pressing demonstration. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

RCMP Sgt. Eric Boechler mixes up a binding agent and some pink-dyed sugar in a small handheld blender. He puts the powder in a pill press, turns it on, and little pills start rapidly pumping out of the noisy machine.

The dyed sugar is used to replace the potentially deadly fentanyl in Boechler's demonstration to show how poorly the drug is distributed throughout a batch of pills.

The officer, who works with the RCMP E Division Federal Serious and Organized Crime Section, is one of the speakers at a two-day first responders' fentanyl workshop at the Justice Institute of B.C. in New Westminster.

RCMP Sgt. Eric Boechler demonstrates the pill manufacturing process using pink-dyed sugar rather than fentanyl to show how unevenly the powerful drug is distributed between pills. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Nearly 200 people attended the workshop, and the auditorium was filled with police, paramedics and firefighters when Boechler took the stage to discuss the latest in law enforcement and fentanyl trends.

"There's definitely a level of fear. Basically not knowing the issues surrounding it." he said of first responders.

"It's basically giving awareness so they're able to know what kind of personal protective equipment to wear, how to deal with the scene, how to deal with a situation where fentanyl may be present, so they can still do their job and yet, go home to their family at the end of the day."

RCMP Sgt. Eric Boechler speaks to an auditorium full of first responders taking part in a two-day fentanyl workshop at the Justice Institute of British Columbia on Wednesday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Boechler described multiple fentanyl analogues — similar drugs like carfentanil — that are even more powerful and dangerous for users and first responders attending an incident.

"Any level of contamination could be dangerous," he said.

Paramedic Christie Boast used her days off to take part in the workshop. She's based in Surrey, where overdoses, often linked to fentanyl, are a regular part of the job.

"It's sad. I try not to keep track. We see it daily," said Boast. "Daily."

Christie Boast is a Surrey-based paramedic with Emergency Health Services of B.C. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"I don't count. I think that's too depressing. It's just — it's overwhelming. I've been doing it for a long time and it's crazy how many overdoses we do in a shift," she said, adding that it's a rapidly changing situation.

"I just wanted to learn more. I mean, we can always learn more about how to cope with the crisis."

"We often go in [to incident scenes] and we trust people, and we can't do that anymore, because we're putting ourselves at risk and we can't help anybody else if we've been exposed to something," said Boast.

Included in Sgt. Eric Boechler's demonstration is a confiscated "fake oxy" pill containing fentanyl and the dyes used to press pills. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Langley Fire Chief Rory Thompson was at the workshop on Wednesday. He said in the last two years, the number of overdoses his crews attend has increased 400 per cent.

"I think our primary interest in attending this event is that, you know, to solve the problem of fentanyl overdoses in the community," said Thompson, whose firefighters now carry naloxone to treat overdose patients.

"It's going to take response from a number of different agencies, so we're looking to see what the fire department can do as part of that community response."

Langley Fire Chief Rory Thompson was at the workshop to see what his department can do in response to the fentanyl overdose crisis. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Abbotsford Police Sgt. Kelly Joiner helped organize the workshop in her seconded role at the Justice Institute of B.C.

"This is the type of training that we need to bring everyone together to collaborate, to communicate," said Joiner.

"That's the thing about fentanyl — it's everywhere. It's in every single community and as we all know, it's making its way across the country. It's not just a drug that's in the Downtown Eastside or Surrey. It's in every community and it involves every person," she said.

A few granules of sugar are used to demonstrate what a lethal dose of fentanyl would look like. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"It's extremely potent and that level of danger raises the awareness that first responders need to have when they go into those situations," said Joiner.

"It's not like it was in the old days, where a powder would be a powder and you didn't need to worry about it touching you and affecting you," she said. "Fentanyl brings us to a whole new level."

Abbotford Police Sgt. Kelly Joiner has been seconded to the Justice Institute of B.C. to serve as manager of advanced police training. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

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Rafferty Baker

Rafferty Baker is CBC Vancouver's mobile journalist. Follow him @raffertybaker