Calgary police don masks, goggles to protect against 'huge threat' of opioids

In addition to carrying the antidote naloxone, frontline officers have begun using opioid protective gear.

Just a few grains of fentanyl can cause an overdose — including in first responders

Calgary police are equipping frontline officers with personal protective gear to shield officers from dangerous substances like fentanyl. (CBC)

Just a few grains of fentanyl, either through a touch or a breath, can cause an overdose. 

The powerful synthetic opioid first appeared on Calgary's streets three years ago, kicking off a public health crisis and catapulting first responders into a potentially lethal situation with every drug call.

Now, in addition to carrying the antidote naloxone, frontline Calgary Police Service officers are starting to be equipped with opioid protective gear.

"We see two people a day overdosing in Alberta, and the majority of them being in Calgary," said Staff Sgt. Mark Hatchette, who works with the community service unit.

"That poses a huge threat to our first responders, our frontline members," he said.

"Having this equipment, having the knowledge, having the extra backup … it all comes to the support of our members. We're legislated through the Alberta government to provide a safe workplace. It's not only a nice to have, it's a need to have."

Masks, goggles

Rollout of the kits began in May. So far, the kits have been distributed to 800 of the roughly 1,000 frontline officers across the city's eight districts.

The equipment includes respiratory masks, goggles, hooded coveralls, gloves and boot covers.

"If you have an unknown substance, it's a good precaution to at least believe it may contain fentanyl until proven otherwise," project leader Sgt. Steve Harris said.

Hatchette said calls are sorted into three categories:

  1. Unknown risk, which describes most calls.
  2. Increased risk for exposure, such as drug-related search warrants or overdose deaths. 
  3. Drug-related hazardous location.

The equipment most often comes into play with the second and third types of calls.

The third is so dangerous, regular officers are asked to stand down so a specialized substance evaluation unit can be sent in.

Staff Sgt. Mark Hatchette said fentanyl poses a huge risk to first responders. (CBC)

It sometimes can even become necessary with unknown risk calls, as the circumstances of calls officers respond to often suddenly change.

"Those that attend those calls with that personal protective equipment, they're confident in their safety, knowing it's going to protect them for that initial call and response," Hatchette said.

Between January and May of this year, police said they responded to more than 140 opioid overdose calls.

In 2017, 733 people across Alberta died from apparent accidental opioid overdoses, according to the province.

Beyond equipping the remainder of the frontline officers, the service's next goal is to ensure they have enough equipment to replace kits that become contaminated once used.

With files from Lucie Edwardson.