Province testing app for opioid users

The province is testing a new app that could help first responders respond to life-threatening opioid overdoses and save more lives.

The Digital Overdose Response System (DORS) smartphone app is designed to improve emergency response to overdoses. The new app announcement comes after published substance-use surveillance data showed 1,128 people died in Alberta from opioid overdoses in 2020.

The app works like a check-in system for people using drugs with overdose potential, such as opioids, in their homes or other private settings. If they do not respond after a certain time, a call from the STARS emergency centre is triggered. Emergency personnel will then be dispatched to their location if an overdose is presumed.

The app also provides information about recovery supports and services available locally.

DORS is being tested this summer in Calgary. It is expected to expand to other communities in Alberta next year.

The app appears like other systems, such as medical alert or lifeline systems, linking people to emergency services. According to Kevin Link, Wheatland EMS operations manager, the greatest potential of DORS lies in decreasing the time it takes emergency personnel to respond to an overdose.

“Once you’re not breathing, you really only have about 10 minutes before permanent and irreversible brain damage occurs,” he said, adding DORS might be more attractive to experienced users, rather than those experimenting with new substances.

Some opioid users have shown they are aware of the dangers of overdose.

“Some of the places we go have a supply of naloxone because there’s been frequent overdoses there,” he said. “So people like that might use this app.”

While the app provides a location, sometimes that is not enough to find a person suffering an overdose. “GPS coordinates don’t always help you,” noted Link. “If you’re responding at an apartment building, you can’t tell what floor they are on because you have x and y coordinates (latitude and longitude), but not z (height).”

The number of overdose events Wheatland EMS responds to varies, said Link. “You’ll have none for several weeks, but then you will have several of them within a week,” he said. “If all of a sudden a stronger batch of narcotic arrives, there are more calls.”

Link said Wheatland EMS responded to an opioid overdose call within the last month. “It’s heartbreaking when we go to those calls, especially when so often the family doesn’t know that person was an addict.”

Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times