When Jamie Sinclair realized that the staff hadn’t seen Joy Phelps in 24 hours, she wasn’t concerned about the resident of the single room occupancy (SRO) hotel she managed.
Phelps was a harm reduction worker who had saved hundreds of lives on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and “used it wisely,” according to Sinclair.
But when he knocked on Phelps’s door in November 2021, no one answered.
Like dozens of residents Sinclair had checked on before, Phelps had died of an overdose.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you go through it … when you open that door and you find someone you care about and you know they just died from drug poisoning,” said Sinclair, who has also experienced addiction.
“It was horrible.”
Two years later, Sinclair is spearheading the launch of LifeguardLite, a new device being installed in more than 2,000 SROs and supportive living units in British Columbia in an effort to save lives during the province’s growing toxic drug crisis.
Before using drugs, residents can set a timer from one to six minutes in the new wall-mounted boxes designed and manufactured by local company Lifeguard Digital Health.
When turned off, residents can extend the timer one minute at a time or press the “I’m OK” button to turn it off.
If the resident does not respond in time, LifeguardLite sounds a loud alarm and alerts building staff to check on the resident.
If no one disables the alarm after verification, the device calls 911 directly and automatically provides first responders with the exact location of the alarm.
More than 12,000 people in BC have died from toxic drugs since 2016, and about a quarter of them died inside shelters, ORS, hotels, or supportive housing. according to the BC Coroner’s Service.
Sixty-one percent of those who have died since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic were using only, the service found in 2022.
Sinclair worked with residents and the PHS Community Services Partnership to develop and test the device, and now trains residents and staff on how to use it when new units are installed.
“I think 10,000 percent that if Joy had had this in her room, she wouldn’t have died,” Sinclair said.
Currently 1,400 units are being installed at PHS Community Services buildings in Vancouver and Victoria, and hundreds more at more than a dozen buildings on Vancouver Island and inland, Sinclair said.
‘Peace of mind’
Devices work similarly to Lifeguard. phone based overdose prevention appwhich has saved 69 lives since 2020, according to BC Emergency Health Services.
But the app can’t help low-income people in social housing who can’t afford a smartphone, some advocates for drug users have said.
Julie Roberts, executive director of Community Builders, a nonprofit organization, says the wall-mounted devices provide more privacy and autonomy for residents who choose to use them alone.
The housing operator manages about 800 housing units and supportive housing in BC
“I don’t think a month has gone by where we haven’t lost one of our residents to an overdose death,” Roberts said.
At his organization’s supportive housing site, Metson Rooms in downtown Vancouver, residents installed and used eight devices, but none have converted to a 911 call yet.
“We’re saving people’s lives and it’s peace of mind for staff and residents,” Roberts said.
The devices can also monitor when a room gets too hot and alert residents if the building’s fire alarm goes off or if they need to evacuate.
Roberts hopes to get funding for devices, which cost an average of $350 each, in all of his organization’s buildings.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction said BC Housing is aware of the LifeguardLite device, but did not say whether the province planned to fund its installation in all public housing units.
BC Housing is “working closely with partners to determine potential applicability within their projects, including supportive housing sites,” the spokesperson wrote.
Both Roberts and Sinclair stressed that the device is only a life-saving tool as the unregulated supply of medicines becomes increasingly toxic and unpredictable.
But they say the data they are collecting on alarms and 911 calls doesn’t capture the full impact of the project.
“I’m doing this for every one of the people I’ve lost, because every time that button is pushed and someone doesn’t die, that’s a family member who doesn’t have to get that phone call, that’s a staff member who You don’t have to stand at that door and call the coroner,” Sinclair said.