Jeff Hardy is not stranger to substance use issues in B.C., having sought out treatment for alcohol use years ago.
But it was when a friend died of a fentanyl overdose that the B.C. man began to brainstorm a strategy.
“There must be something else that can be done here to help people,” Hardy said, recalling his thoughts at the time of his friend’s death.
Hardy, of White Rock, wanted to create a buddy system of some sort, as using alone is considered a high-risk factor for a fatal overdose. In May, 85 per cent of overdose deaths happened indoors.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and attempts to slow transmission of the virus, have added to isolation for everyone in B.C., including people who use illicit drugs. May was the worst month on record for fatal overdoses since the crisis began more than four years ago. The 170 deaths in May rose above the previous record of 160 deaths, set in December 2016.
Hardy knew he couldn’t provide an in-person buddy for every person using drugs, but realized that he could dial one in.
“Everybody has a cellphone,” he said.
“The key was to be able to get emergency responders to anybody that would need it if they were in trouble because they were alone when they overdosed.”
Enter Lifeguard. The Vancouver-based app is available for free for both Apple iOS and Android devices and uses GPS tracking to bring an ambulance to a user who is overdosing.
To set it up, Hardy says, you just enter your first and last name and your phone number, which allows the app to verify your identity. Then, just before a person begins to use, they will load up the app and enter which drug they’re using. That, Hardy said, helps first responders tailor the help they provide. The user must then confirm their GPS location and provide any other location details – say if they’re in a bathroom or other specific location – and then press start.
This kickstarts a one-minute timer, which users can snooze if they need more time.
“The majority of overdoses happen pretty quick,” Hardy said. That’s especially true for fentanyl, which preliminary government data shows was present in 70 per cent of fatal overdoses in May.
When there is just 10 seconds left, an alarm will begin to ring, getting progressively louder. If the user doesn’t tap the red stop button, B.C. Emergency Health Services will be alerted – but the police won’t be.
“This is not a tool to give information to the police, or anybody who’s going to try and force the law on you,” Hardy said.
That aspect was crucial to Hardy.
“It’s anonymous. This isn’t one of those things that [police] are a part of.”
Information, he added, is only shared with BCEHS in the event that a person overdoses and an ambulance is dispatched.
The alarm set off by the timer will continue to ring until emergency services arrive and are able to administer naloxone or provide any other medical help.
“Hopefully, somebody will hear you and come and try and help you before the ambulance even gets there.”
But keeping someone alive is just the first step. The app can also connect user to a crisis line that is answered 24/7.
“It’s important that somebody answers quickly,” Hardy said.
“If you’re somebody that wants to get into drug and alcohol counselling… or any type of treatment, whatever it is you need – that’s where the whole process starts.”
The app, which launched in May, has been used more than 1,000 times by 600 people.
Hardy worked with the Provincial Health Authority, BCEHS and other provincial bodies to test and pilot the app in “controlled environments.”
“More and more people are starting to download it. It’s becoming a habit [to use the app],” Hardy said. The feedback from initial testing in Vancouver Downtown Eastside showed the app made people more aware of how many times they used drugs, he added.
“We get a lot of positive feedback from all walks of life.”
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