Huntington, West Virginia, has been called ground zero of the opioid crisis by the media. Opioid use and overdoses crept up in the mid-2000s, escalating around 2011 and increasing steadily until 2017 when the county of 95,000 had 1,831 non-fatal overdoses and 183 overdose deaths. That works out to over 15 deaths per month.
The chief of the Huntington Fire Department estimates the average firefighter in Huntington encountered five deaths per month in 2017 due to the opioid epidemic. Some of those were classmates, relatives or friends. The weight of seeing so many deaths in such a short time was overwhelming for many.
In two recent talks, Huntington Fire Department’s chief outlined the problems of treating overdose victims, how firefighters in her department are being negatively impacted and what the community is doing about all of it. Huntington began several programs to tackle these problems:
- They started sending out Quick Response Teams (PDF, 434 KB) consisting of a paramedic, law enforcement officer, a recovery clinician and member of the faith community to visit overdose victims within 72 hours of resuscitation to offer treatment options, resulting in a 30 percent success rate.
- They opened ProAct, a one-stop clinic that works with individuals to develop treatment options. This gives first responders a place to take people who have refused to go to the hospital and reduces the load on emergency rooms.
- Huntington received money to develop Compass, a self-care program for first responders and their families. Compass reduces the stigma of mental health counseling, provides effective and fun programs for first responder families and embeds wellness coordinators within first response units.
And the outcome? The Huntington community reduced non-fatal overdoses by 41 percent in 2018 and overdose deaths even more. So far in 2019, overdoses are down more than 60 percent from the 2017 record. This is an incredible turnaround in such a short time.
Addressing the opioid issue requires participation of many different departments and offices and better first responder training on substance abuse. Fortunately, the success Huntington has experienced can be mirrored in other communities through similar programs. As the chief states, the opioid epidemic is not a “one- and-done” emergency. This is an ongoing, long-term issue requiring different tactics and procedures than typically used in emergency response.
This article appears in the Aug. 22, 2019 InfoGram PDF ~200 KB. | Subscribe to the InfoGram
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