Firefighters are paying for ads out their own pockets in an effort get the word out about a deadly fentanyl crisis in the city.
For the next two months, the 30-second spot will run on TV, radio and in movie theatres.
"Firefighters and paramedics respond to overdoses every day," says Alex Forrest, president of the United Firefighters of Winnipeg, in the ad, "and although they respond with Narcan, you have to be alive for it to work."
Flanked by two city firefighters and a Manitoba MLA at a press conference Thursday, Forrest put the out-of-pocket cost at about $50,000.
"If these ads save one life, it will be worth it. We know how slow bureaucracy is; that's why firefighters are putting their own money into it," Forrest said.
"Fentanyl use has gone through the roof," Winnipeg paramedic Derek Balcaen told the Free Press.
He said people have probably seen victims on the street and not recognized they'd overdosed.
"One of the dangers to this, is someone who isn't breathing from a fentanyl overdoses looks identical to someone who may have had a heart attack or is just having a snooze somewhere on a bus bench or in a park. You might not recognize what's actually happening," Balcaen said.
Balcaen said the frequency of calls, from everywhere across the city, is alarming.
"I've been a paramedic for about 12 years and in the beginning we might have had a couple of overdoses a year. It was nearly uncommon. Now, it's coming in several times a day. I heard from a firefighter yesterday; between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. he'd already had three separate people overdose. It really is an epidemic," Balcaen said.
Balcaen recounted a recent evening call that came into a downtown fire hall. He was among the responders: "We got dispatched to a coffee shop, a very well frequented coffee shop. Not your stereotypical location. We're expecting a couple of people who had too much alcohol. These two patients were younger people, well dressed. Again, they didn't meet the stereotypical idea of what a drug user looks like," Balcaen said.
"All of a sudden I realize these people were only breathing two breaths a minute, they've very, very close to death. We determined they'd overdosed on fentanyl. We proceeded to administer Narcan ( the fentanyl antedote also known as naloxone)
"I'm happy to say they're still with us," Balcaen said.
Forrest predicted the city and the province will catch up with the firefighters are with their own campaigns. Part of the motive for firefighters to put their own money into ads is simple self-preservation.
Three grains of carfentanil the size of a grain of salt are enough to kill someone, Forrest said.
"We're not only dealing with an unbelievable number of overdoses throughout the whole city, everything from downtown to the suburbs. It's also dangerous for firefighters, police officer and paramedics because it's very easy for them to ingest it accidentally," Forrest said.
The removal of three bodies of victims of an apparent fentanyl overdose from a house in the Maples took hours Wednesday, in an effort to protect emergency crews from exposure, he said.
"That's how dangerous this situation is," Forrest said.
"We're getting tremendous support from the province and the city, we're hoping they'll come to us and give us a slap on the back and help us out financially.
"I believe now we're starting this, you're going to see the city and the province take the lead very quickly," Forrest predicted.
Last year, the Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service reported paramedics and firefighters responded to 96 calls involving fentanyl in which the opioid poisoning antidote naloxone (known by the trade name Narcan) was administered. That was in the first 10 months of the year.
Reports from Manitoba's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Thursday showed the number of deaths linked fentanyl nearly doubled in the last two years.
Fentanyl was cited as a contributing or primary factor in 20 overdose deaths in 2015. That number is up from 13 deaths linked the drug in 2014 and 11 deaths in 2013.
Kelvin Goertzen, the province's health minister, is in Ottawa attending an Opioid Summit on the national crisis Friday and Saturday.
There have been hundreds of overdose deaths reported in Canada; cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Winnipeg appear to be emerging as epicentres of the drug epidemic.
It's not easy to get hard data on the number of overdoses and deaths from fentanyl and it's far more deadly cousin carfentanil in the city this year.
Anecdotally, firefighters, paramedics and parents of victims say overdoses are a daily occurrence.
The mother of one addict said she's counted seven deaths among friends and acquaintances in recent weeks.