Surrey Fire Department Uses Statistical Analysis to Fight the Opioid Crisis

By employing business intelligence tools, emergency responders can significantly reduce their response time to overdoses

Surrey emergency responders have been using statistical data analysis software since 2016 to pinpoint areas where overdoses occur more frequently. (Braden Klassen)

The B.C. opioid crisis reached tragic new heights last year with over 1,420 deaths reported as a result of illegal drug use, more than 80 per cent of which were linked to fentanyl. These numbers exceed deaths from car accidents, suicides, and homicides.

The City of Surrey alone saw 174 drug-related deaths last year, the second highest toll in the province after Vancouver’s. These statistics represent a dire situation, as emergency responders like Len Garis know from firsthand experience.

Garis is Surrey’s Fire Chief, as well as an adjunct professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of the Fraser Valley. In order to continuously improve the city’s approach to dealing with the opioid crisis, he and his team have employed statistical analysis to respond as efficiently as possible to overdoses in Surrey.

“We’re using a business intelligence tool that monitors our inputs, [which are] discrete events,” explains Garis. Business intelligence refers to the type of software that sorts and analyses data for businesses and organizations. “We have a computer-aided dispatch system and we have a records management system.”

Since the statistical analysis tool was adopted by the department in July of 2016, it has activated special alerts 10 times. One such time was when four overdoses took place within two hours. That means that the system noticed higher-than-average activity in a given area, leading the department to move their resources closer to the area to better address the incidents as they occur.

Garis indicates that many other data points are monitored as well, such as who is on or off duty.

“In this particular case, we want to be able to sort through all of these transactions and just pull out the events that are focused on an overdose,” says Garis. “If at any time there are four overdoses within one square kilometre, [we want the statistical analysis] to tell us about that and send us a report. Or, if the daily rate of overdoses doubles, [it will] tell us that too.”

Garis says that their response times are often within five minutes, but during periods of high activity, they can extend to 10 minutes. This can be the difference between life and death to someone suffering an overdose.

“We built this resource for ourselves and then, of course, we share that information through a privacy sharing agreement with Fraser Health,” says Garis. “They have addictions workers who are able to interact on the ground with individuals who may or may not be drug users or potential drug users.”

According to an email from Tasleem Juma, a spokesperson for Fraser Health, the organization “really appreciates the leadership the Surrey Fire Department has shown in pioneering this technology that helps us determine what real-time strategic interventions are needed.”

“Access to data is very important for us as it helps us determine how to best deploy our resources. Analysis of our own data helped us realize that people working in the trades are particularly at risk of overdose,” wrote Juma.

From the data currently being gathered by the tool, Garis believes that his team has a good understanding of the time, location, and frequency, but not the typology, of overdose victims. To address this, the fire department has entered into a project with Statistics Canada to further understand the typology of the individuals who have overdosed.

“We did this for our understanding, to get as close as real-time to the event so we can minimize the likelihood of someone overdosing and not getting resuscitated quickly,” he says.

Garis believes that, with the development of machine learning and many minds working on addressing the opioid crisis, creating technology that predicts overdoses before they happen may be possible in the future.

“It’s a tool. It’s not a silver bullet and by no means a game changer,” says Garis. “In terms of tackling this problem, it’s way deeper than a game changer. A game changer would be getting in front of the overdose.”


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