Volunteer rural firefighters call lack of naloxone kits 'scary' situation

Volunteer firefighters in Nova Scotia's Lunenburg County say their lives are being put at risk if accidentally exposed to fentanyl on the job because they don't have access to naloxone.

All 34 fire departments in Lunenburg County are without access to the fentanyl antidote kits

Naloxone, including this spray kit, can be used to save a life during an opioid overdose. (Holly Conners/CBC)

Volunteer firefighters in Nova Scotia's Lunenburg County say their lives are being put at risk if accidentally exposed to fentanyl on the job because they don't have access to naloxone.

RCMP officers, Justice Department sheriffs and paramedics in Lunenburg County currently carry naloxone, which can reverse the effects of an overdose from opioids, including fentanyl. 

Bridgewater's municipal police service is also equipped and officers have been trained on how to administer the potentially live-saving medication.

However, none of the county's 34 volunteer fire departments has a kit.

"We're first responders. We're quite often there first on the scene," said Sherri Dickson, a firefighter in Bridgewater.

"If that call has something to do with the fentanyl issues, we're at high risk." 

Suspected exposures

Fentanyl and carfentanil are powerful opioids which are beginning to show up in Nova Scotia. Even small amounts can be harmful. 

First responders in other provinces have reported suspected exposures simply from being in the same area as fentanyl at a car crash or inside a house. 

However, Dr. Andrew Travers, the provincial medical director for Emergency Health Services (EHS) said the latest research indicates exposure only happens when a synthetic opioid gets into the brain through being ingested or being exposed to mucus membranes.

For that reason, Travers said the occupational risk is not as high as some people imagine, and the province has chosen to target "hot spots" for distribution of naloxone kits to volunteer firefighters, rather than do a province-wide distribution.

"I know that there's always the question with regards to, should we have naloxone in other areas of the province, with other providers. And sure, we are going to work towards that area, but we're going to do it in a controlled and evidence-based and integrated fashion," said Travers. 

Fentanyl hits Lunenburg County

Meanwhile, Heather Mackenzie-Carey of the Regional Emergency Management Organization in Lunenburg County said her organization needs direction from the provincial government in terms of accessing naloxone kits. 

Heather Mackenzie-Carey says the Lunenburg County Regional Emergency Management Organization recognizes that fentanyl is already in the community and could be a threat to first responders. (CBC)

"Because we're rural, our firefighters wear multiple hats and they are often the first ones in to a variety of calls," said Mackenzie-Carey, who co-ordinates and supports first responders on behalf of municipal governments.

"They could be walking in on something they're not aware of."

Preparing for the unknown

She said the five municipalities in her area have money set aside for naloxone nasal spray kits for firefighters.

Sherri Dickson (left) and Anita MacDonald Arenburg (right) are volunteer firefighters with the Bridgewater fire department. (CBC)

On July 28, her organization sent a letter to the Nova Scotia government on behalf of the county's 800 active firefighters asking for municipal and provincial co-ordination in making kits available to volunteer fire departments.

Mackenzie-Carey said the organization is aware that fentanyl is in the area.

"It's not to the degree that we're seeing in other places around the country but at any day it could be," she said. 

"We know it's here and it's also an emerging threat."

Lt. Anita MacDonald Arenburg of the Bridgewater fire department said her department has already been involved in cases involving fentanyl.

"Whatever call we go out on, we want to be prepared for whatever the call is," she said, adding that it's a "scary situation."

'It's a priority'

Bridgewater Coun. Wayne Thorburne says volunteer first responders need to be protected while on the job. (CBC)

Wayne Thorburne, chair of the Regional Emergency Management Organization for Lunenburg County, said it's important the kits are made available soon.

"It's a priority because our first responders are all volunteers," said Thorburne, a municipal councillor in Bridgewater and a former firefighter.

"They volunteer a lot for training and to provide a high level of service to the residents. We feel collectively like we have to protect our first responders and do whatever we can to make their jobs safer."

About the Author

Shaina Luck

Reporter

Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca