Simple, safe, effective: Island Health grant supports washroom sensor project for Vancouver Island libraries

Special sensors in washrooms at select Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) branches can help save lives and support staff, library users and communities by monitoring for medical emergencies, including toxic drug poisonings.

In December 2023, 10 motion detection sensors were activated in washroom stalls at the Nanaimo Harbourfront branch, which was considered an at-risk VIRL branch. Based on the success at Harbourfront, additional sensors have been installed at other VIRL branches in Courtenay, Campbell River and Port Hardy.

This project, called Brave Branches, received $50,000 in funding from Island Health’s Resilience and Safety Grant program. That initiative offers grants for projects that focus on improving mental wellbeing, building youth resilience and mitigating harms associated with the unregulated drug supply.

“Communities across Vancouver Island are deeply affected by the toxic drug crisis,” says Jennifer Whiteside, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “Libraries face unique challenges as they strive to be safe, welcoming spaces for everyone. With these new sensors, medical emergencies can be identified and responded to promptly. This innovative approach saves lives and ensures that individuals receive the care they need, exactly when they need it.”

“Complex problems such as the toxic drug crisis require innovative approaches. I applaud Vancouver Island Regional Library for pursuing this project,” says Leah Hollins, Island Health Board Chair. “Island Health is honoured to support Brave Branches and other projects to build resiliency and foster safer communities.”

“Our Strategic Plan prioritizes safe, inclusive and welcoming spaces,” says Erin Hemmens, VIRL Board Chair. " Brave Sensors are innovative tools we can use to improve the safety and accessibility of our spaces – spaces invaluable to our communities. We are so grateful for this support from Island Health.”


Pictured: Jason McConnell, VIRL’s Divisional Manager of Health and Safety Emily Mathews, VIRL’s Assistant Director for Experience and Engagement.

The sensors monitor how long a person has occupied a washroom and whether they are moving – or not. If an occupant has not moved for a set amount of time, then a notification is sent via text to designated responders, including security guards and library staff. “The sensor is not looking for movement – it’s looking for lack of movement,” says Jason McConnell, VIRL’s Divisional Manager of Health and Safety.

McConnell says libraries are uniquely positioned in the midst of the drug crisis, which was declared a public health emergency in B.C. more than eight years ago. As the crisis has grown, so too have the pressures on libraries and staff. “We’re seeing upticks in the types of hazards and risks that we’re being exposed to. We’re seeing more frequent events,” he says.

Some VIRL staff in north Vancouver Island first brought the sensors to McConnell’s attention. He then followed up with Brave Technology Co-Op, which provides the sensors. And he successfully applied for the Island Health grant, which he said has meant “everything” to the project.

Thankfully, there have not yet been any interventions for toxic drug poisonings due to sensor alerts at the Harbourfront branch. Emily Mathews, VIRL’s Assistant Director for Experience and Engagement, says the Harbourfront team is “incredibly happy” with the sensor installation. “It has made staff monitoring of our public washrooms much simpler, safer and more effective since we can rely on automatic alerts instead of tracking entries and exits, which is much more difficult,” she says (washroom checks still occur, but much less frequently).

“Washrooms in public libraries are some of the few, if not the only, public facilities left in many cities and towns that are freely accessible to all who need them, and there continues to be increasing pressure on their use. The sensors are helping to make those spaces not only easier to manage for staff but also safer for patrons.”

Others have also taken note of the VIRL project. For example, McConnell has connected with staff at a county government in Arizona, which is considering sensor technology for its communities.

Last year, Island Health announced similar sensor trials taking place at washrooms at some of its sites, including Nanaimo Regional General Hospital and the Comox Valley Nursing Centre and Mental Health and Substance use sites in Courtenay. Since then, trials have also launched at the North Island Hospital, Campbell River & District and Campbell River MHSU Tyee Office, and the Eric Martin Pavilion (EMP) in Victoria.

From August – December 2023, there were 407 washroom checks at those sites (excluding EMP) based on sensor alerts, and patients responded to let staff know they were alright. Five significant events occurred, which resulted in staff responding to patients in distress.

More Island Health sensor implementations are planned to launch soon at the Oceanside Health Unit in Parksville, Cowichan Valley Mental Health and Substance Use, and the Harbour Supervised Consumption Service and Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria.

Through the Resilience and Safety Grant program, Island Health partners with Indigenous and non-Indigenous community organizations to launch new and innovative initiatives aimed at improving youth resilience, workplace wellness and individual safety related to the toxic drug crisis. The latest round of grant recipients was announced on April 4.

About Island Health:
Island Health provides health and care services to more than 885,000 people on Vancouver Island, the islands in the Salish Sea and the Johnstone Strait, and mainland communities north of Powell River. With more than 30,000 health-care professionals, including more than 3,000 doctors, nurse practitioners, midwives and dentists that make up our Medical Staff – as well as 1,500 volunteers, and the dedicated support of 12 foundations and 19 active auxiliaries – Island Health delivers a broad range of health services, including: public health services, primary health care, home and community care, mental health and substance use services, acute care in hospitals, and much more across a huge and geographically diverse region.

About VIRL

VIRL delivers tremendous economies of scale and significant returns on investment, by working with 38 local governments across a 42,000 km2 service area. Our collective services are a demonstrable commitment to livability and affordability and are enjoyed by nearly a third of residents overall. These services include free access to dynamic programming and events, bookable meeting rooms, and 39 branches that are essential Third Spaces in communities large and small. VIRL has the third-largest public library collection in BC, featuring downloadable e-books, audiobooks, digital news, streaming services, children’s materials, and much more.