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Surrey firefighters help tackle meth problem: Awareness campaign, funding aid anti-drug program

The growing meth epidemic in Canada’s cities is usually the territory of police, health and social service agencies. In Surrey, B.C., however, members of the fire service have thrown their support – and dollars – into the fight against this scourge in their community.

January 21, 2008 
By Karin Mark

Meth labs are extremely dangerous and can result in explosions and structure fires.

The growing meth epidemic in Canada’s cities is usually the territory of police, health and social service agencies. In Surrey, B.C., however, members of the fire service have thrown their support – and dollars – into the fight against this scourge in their community. 

“We have to break from tradition and leverage our resources,” Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis explained. “We’re saying, ‘There is a problem in the city, and it’s our problem, too.’”

Meth is a common term for crystal methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug that affects the body’s nervous system and initially makes users feel invincible and euphoric. Meth can be cheaply and easily manufactured using many products – referred to as precursors – found in hardware and drug stores, including acetone, hydrochloric acid, red phosphorous, ephedrine, lye, Draino, iodine, lighter and brake fluid, cold remedies and camper fuel.

The inexpensive production of meth results in a cheap street cost, making it increasingly the drug of choice among addicts. B.C. police say a single dose of meth can cost as little as $5. An addict can support a habit for as little as $20 a day, according to Clandestine Drug Laboratories in British Columbia, a 2005 report by the International Centre for Urban Research Studies at the University College of the Fraser Valley.


Even more alarming are recent studies indicating that meth may be prevalent in B.C. high schools. In a 2005 Institute for Safe Schools for British Columbia survey, at least eight per cent of the 13,176 high school students polled in three school districts said they used crystal meth during the 2004-05 school year – mostly on school property. As well, close to half reported using meth on school grounds more than once a week.

The situation is similar in Surrey, where a 2005 school district survey found that 1,260 (nine per cent) of 14,000 high school students had used meth off of school grounds, while 980 students (seven per cent) had used meth while at school.
Also among the district survey results was the startling statistic that four per cent of Grade 8 students and three per cent of Grade 9 students said they use meth more than once a week.

In response to Surrey’s growing meth problem, the Surrey Methamphetamine Regional Task Force (SMART) was formed in February 2006, following the model of a successful pilot project in neighbouring Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows.

SMART’s 90-day awareness campaign spawned an ongoing Meth Watch program in the community that targets businesses that sell meth precursors. Chief Garis chaired SMART’s precursor committee and Surrey firefighters helped promote the awareness campaign by distributing precursor information to Surrey businesses.

The fire service has also made a long-term commitment to help sustain Meth Watch in Surrey. During company inspections, firefighters look for meth precursors and encourage retailers to join Meth Watch, which provides display materials and education about suspicious sales of precursors. 

Surrey firefighters have also opened their wallets to help fight their community’s drug problem. In September, the Surrey Firefighters’ Charitable Society – a project of the Surrey Firefighters’ Union – announced a pledge of $1 million towards fighting mental health and addiction-related issues in Surrey.

The funds will be divided three ways:

• $100,000 for an endowment to establish an lectureship on research into mental health and addiction at Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus, allowing for an expert to share research findings at SFU and speak at community forums throughout the region;

 • $500,000 for a mental health and addictions crisis unit at Surrey Memorial Hospital’s new Emergency Centre; and

• $400,000 towards future city programs that provide long-term solutions to crime and the cycle of addiction.

“We feel firefighters are respected members of the community and we should take a leadership role in trying to deal with some of these social issues,” said Larry Thomas, president of the firefighters’ union and its charitable society.

As first responders and public safety advocates, firefighters have grown increasingly concerned about the negative consequences of drugs in the community, including crime, the general decay of the downtown core and the growing number of homeless addicts, Thomas said.

It’s hoped the firefighters’ funds will not only help bridge the gap in services for addicts that exists after the police do their jobs, but also encourage other organizations and businesses to step up and provide funding, he added. “The aim is to help create a safer community, and that’s what we’re all about.”

A strong relationship exists between drugs, crime and threats to public safety. In a 2003 report on auto crime in Surrey called Perception vs. Reality, police estimated that most auto thieves are addicts and at least 70 per cent are chronic meth users. Stolen vehicles are often used to commit secondary crimes, including arson, the report said. As well, reckless driving comes with the territory and sometimes results in fatalities; between 1999 and 2001, 81 deaths resulted from stolen vehicles in Canada.

The production of drugs brings considerable safety hazards into residential neighbourhoods. The UCFV report Clandestine Drug Laboratories in British Columbia, which studied the 33 clandestine labs found by police from April 2, 2004 to March 31, 2005, said 58 per cent of the labs were in houses or apartments, most of them rented.

Fire and explosion are known risks at clandestine labs, the report said. A review of files revealed that leaky chemical containers were found at 33 per cent of the sites, while burn hazards were found at 64 per cent of the sites. As well, fire was involved in one-third of the labs that were operational at the time of police intervention.

In addition, the labs pose environmental risks from improper disposal of chemicals and equipment, and the presence of weapons threatens public safety. Firearms were found at 31 per cent of the labs, and other weapons, such as knives, were found 23 per cent of the time.

Working to eliminate drug labs is important, but it is only one part of the solution, Chief Garis said. Each day, firefighters see the other side of the equation – the results of drug addictions – as they respond to medical emergencies around the community. It’s clear a more holistic approach to the problem is needed – one that involves all members of the community, including the fire service, he said. “We need to get upstream of the problem and be proactive to assist the community in dealing with it.”

Based near Vancouver, B.C., Karin Mark writes for publications and corporate clients and offers a range of contract communications services. She previously worked as a newspaper reporter for 13 years, earning multiple provincial and federal awards for her news and feature writing.

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