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How the deadly heat dome changed firefighters' jobs in one B.C. city

This photo shows one of the fire stations in New Westminster, B.C. (Credit: Facebook/newwestminster) This photo shows one of the fire stations in New Westminster, B.C. (Credit: Facebook/newwestminster)
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Firefighters in the B.C. city that saw the highest death rate during the 2021 heat dome will be able to provide more medical intervention during the next mass casualty or extreme weather event.

The City of New Westminster announced Monday that members of the fire department are now designated as "emergency medical responders," which means they can assess a broader range of vital signs and administer more medications and treatments.

The increased training came as a direct response to the experience of first responders during the heat dome when paramedics were overwhelmed with calls, according to Deputy Chief Brad Davie, who says he firmly believes that firefighters would have been able to save lives if they had this training at the time.

"Crews were left trapped at scenes for quite some timeframe without any support from BC Ambulance Service," he told CTV News.

"This has been a morale booster for us because one of the things that was very frustrating and hard mentally on the firefighters was when they had somebody who needed help in front of them and they didn't have the resources available to help them. That can be quite traumatic to firefighters."

Thirty-three people died in New Westminster during the heat dome, which accounted for just over five per cent of the 691 fatalities in the province. However, the per-capita death rate was 41.8 per 100,000, according to the coroner's extreme heat death review panel. Davies says it is impossible to know for sure exactly how many lives could have been saved in 2021, but that he has no doubt the death toll would have been lower.

New Westminster Mayor Patrick Johnstone, in a news release, said the number of medical calls in recent years due to extreme weather has been "overwhelming" and has "demonstrated the critical need for more emergency medical resources to prevent delays in providing time-sensitive treatment."

Equipping more first responders to intervene in more situations, he added, will ease some of the pressure on paramedics and better equip the city to respond during mass casualty events or states of emergency.

Davies said being able to better assess patients will allow firefighters to help triage which cases require the most urgent attention and prioritize which patients need the most urgent medical attention.

"We're doing a better job of determining who's sicker and who's healthier with these new patient assessment tools," he explained.

Davies said there will also be an impact on day-to-day operations, allowing firefighters to take more measures to "reduce the loss of life." On average, half of the calls that come in on a daily basis are for "pre-hospital medical aid calls," according to the city.

The expanded scope of practise allows firefighters to, among other things, assess blood oxygen levels and chest sounds, to administer medication for emergency cardiac events, and to treat anaphylaxis with epinephrine in the case of extreme allergic reactions.

"It's been quite well received, this extra training, by the firefighters. They're quite excited about it – to be able to help in more ways than they have been able to help before," Davies said.

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