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‘It’s very concerning’: Calgary fire crews see calls climb, including overdoses and encampment blazes

The Calgary Fire Department is having its busiest year ever for call volume and medical calls now make up the majority of its responses.

As we near the end of the year, the department is expecting to exceed 94,000 calls in 2023 — a significant jump from the 60,000 responses CFD experienced just three years ago.

Fires are up nine per cent this year while medical calls increased by 22 per cent, a majority of which include responding to overdoses downtown.

“The more troubling thing is it’s not linear, it’s actually a steepening curve (of calls),” fire chief Steve Dongworth told CTV News in a year-end interview.

“One has to wonder when it might slow down a little bit and what will 2024 look like.”

Calgary Fire Department Chief Steve Dongworth sat down with CTV News to discuss fire trends in 2023.

Crews are no longer just responding to just smoke and flames, Dongworth explained. Medical calls now make up about 57 per cent of the total calls into the department.

Another troubling trend, the chief points out, is the amount of fires at encampments. A typical year used to see firefighters responding to tents, abandoned buildings and other structures for fires fewer than 60 times annually, but encampment calls exceeded 100 by mid-November.

In early December, three people died after a fire in a display shed in the parking lot of a home renovation store. It’s believed the people were using the structure to stay warm.

“It’s very concerning,” Dongworth said.

“Often these encampments are not on roadways, they’re not as accessible,” he added. “There’s a very high risk at those encampments.”

But the added demand on the department is being met with more dollars. Calgary councillors just approved a $3.4 million funding boost to the budget to help with the additional calls and to provide more equipment.

Another medical response unit will be deployed by CFD in the downtown core next year and more firefighters will be staffed on ladder trucks by 2026.

In addition to the busy year within the city, the fire department also sent crews to Yellowhead County, Yellowknife and Grande Prairie to assist with wildfires in those areas.

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