There are 41 fire stations spread across Calgary, Alberta. To a group of University of Calgary medical students, they represent an untapped harm reduction resource, as potential venues for supervised consumption sites (SCS), where people can use banned drugs with peers and staff trained and equipped to reverse overdoses.
The team is currently exploring this idea and reaching out to various stakeholders. They hope to complete a document outlining how Alberta’s most populous city could potentially implement such an idea—and how other municipalities could also get on board.
Evan Watson, Angela Chen and McKenzie Tilstra began thinking about this last November, when their group of U of C classmates sought to come up with new ideas to help people who use drugs during the overdose crisis. They wanted to find a way to help save lives without pushing people into private rehabilitation facilities—which is the way the provincial government in Alberta is going, with its abstinence-oriented take on addiction. A number of Alberta SCS have been forced to close in this climate, leaving many people without safe spaces to use drugs.
“So, for us, it’s about trying to come up with a creative solution,” Watson told Filter.
Eventually, they settled on the idea of setting SCS up on municipal land near fire stations. Fire stations are located in many parts of the city, making them easily accessible, and they tend to have vacant land next to them. Another factor is that Alberta fire departments are already regularly called on to respond to overdoses.
The team drafted a proposal for the idea, and ended up receiving $2,500 in funding from the Social Innovation Initiative, an effort out of the U of C and various other organizations.
“What we have right now is a mandate to explore the possibility and the roadblocks.”
According to Watson, they’re now in the process of connecting with fire services, community organizations, various government bodies, harm reduction groups, people who use drugs, and other stakeholders across Canada. They want to collect feedback and get a sense of whether doing this would be possible, as well as the best way of going about it. “What we have right now is a mandate to explore the possibility and the roadblocks related to whether or not this can be something that can be implemented,” he said.
The SCS they envision would be standalone sites outside of fire stations, potentially run through temporary structures like tents. This would be both for the sake of easing things for an overburdened fire service, and for the comfort of the clientele. Further, they would be operated by community groups that already provide services for people who use drugs.
At the end of the initial process, the team wants to create a longer document and a working model—materials that could be shared with other municipalities, so they could potentially replicate the plan.
Normally, funding for SCS comes from provincial coffers—for example, the particularly busy one in Lethbridge, Alberta, from which the provincial government pulled its funding in 2020.
If the abstinence-oriented United Conservative Party remains in power in Alberta, the team’s proposal could potentially help make up the harm reduction shortfall—if other funding were obtained. And if a future government is more amenable to SCS, the project might work in conjunction with its priorities. However, Watson noted that “at some level, in order for this to happen, you’re going to have to be looking for broad support across the spectrum.”
Besides the basic goal of saving lives by reversing overdoses, the project could also theoretically reduce the burden on a health care system which is, broadly speaking, ailing across Canada. “We know that if we can keep people out of hospital by preventing overdoses before they happen, that’s an incredibly powerful thing,” Watson said.
“This group has a stellar team, a convincing plan to meaningfully co-create solutions with community members with lived experience, on a topic that’s affected far too many people for far too long,” Aleem Bharwani, cofounder U of C’s Pluralism Initiative—one of the groups involved in the funding—wrote in an email to Filter. “I’m hopeful and inspired by young medical students who seek to co-create durable solutions to improve our collective quality of life.”