Initiating Change: First Responders Opening Doors to Recovery
They are the first to show up on the scene of an accident, incident, or crime, responding to more than 240 million 911 calls every year: First responders. This includes paramedics, emergency medical technicians, police officers, firefighters, rescuers, among other trained personnel. According to the American Security Foundation website, there are approximately 891,000 emergency medical service (EMS) professionals in the United States, comprising 600,000 EMTs and 142,000 paramedics, transporting nearly 16 million patients by ambulance every year. There are more than 1 million firefighters, of whom 750,000 are volunteers. As of 2018, 686,665 full-time law enforcement officers work hard in our country to help others.
In some states, it is reported that half of the 911 calls are related to drugs or alcohol, and those numbers are likely more anecdotal than actual. There is a high-percentage correlation between thefts, burglary, and chemical dependencies. The problem is that these situations are treated as crimes, not the mental illness incidents that they are. But that is shifting.
I wanted to find out more about the experiences of first responders as it relates to addiction. I spoke with Milford Ohio’s Assistant Chief of Police Sean Mahan, who told me about a particular program they created in partnership with Miami Township and other local organizations, including Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health. They created MMART, the Milford Miami Addiction Response Team. Folks involved with MMART (usually a first responder plus two counselors) venture out every Tuesday to follow up on cases with people who suffered overdoses or other addiction-related incidents and offer help to those who need it. They coordinate enforcement efforts with the Clermont County Drug Unit, and the Hamilton County Heroin Task Force. But not everyone wants that help. Most addicts don’t, at least not at first.
I called a friend who is a crisis intervention specialist in Connecticut. She told me that they have a similar program in New London that proactively seeks out addicts to get them into treatment. The group goes to tent city and camps where people who are homeless set up makeshift shelters. “The problem is that most don’t accept the help. They have to want it.”
Many of the volunteers who proactively seek to support the system are ex-users, and most are in recovery.
I also spoke with Newtown Ohio Police Chief Tom Synan, who said, “Everyone is trying. We carry Narcan and guide addicts to treatment and community support groups. As first responders, we need to look at addiction as the chronic medical health condition that it is and be a link to resources.”
Synan and I talked about how first-responders open the door toward treatment for many addicts in communities. Previously, law enforcement was not prepared to deal with this crisis. The old tactics didn’t stop a massive wave of addiction. They didn’t have the knowledge or tools to deal with people in active addiction, and even now, those are limited. Not having backend resources, first responders started many of the programs we see developing across the country.
First responders are leading the way to change the system
Synan talked about how drugs played out in our country. In the ’70s, there was heroin. In the ‘80s, cocaine. The 90s brought crack, and we saw methamphetamine in the 2000s. Then 40 to 50 years after heroin first came into play, we saw fentanyl and carfentanil enter the illicit market, and 72,000 Americans died in one year. “That’s more than the Vietnam War,” Synan noted. “It reduced the American lifespan by two months.”
Opiates and fentanyl showed up on east coast streets around 2012, and in 2014 it worked its way to Ohio. Heroin became unlike anything else before. It could take years or decades to have one’s life destroyed by meth or alcohol. But the impact of fentanyl and carfentanil was immediate death.
“In 2014, we saw 20 to 25 overdoses per week and one death per week on average, and in 2016 with fentanyl, that doubled,” Synan said. “Now, we’re seeing 50 to 70 overdoses weekly in Hamilton county alone, and in other areas, it’s higher.”
“Several hundred thousand died before we changed the way we looked at this. The opioid epidemic brought out all of these underlying issues and forced us to deal with them. This goes beyond political, economic, racial, and geographic concerns. If it weren’t for the extreme numbers, we wouldn’t have changed,” Synan said.
Synan shared that in his experience, it takes seven to eight interactions on average to influence someone in active addiction to seek recovery, and one to three years for their brains to rewire where they have a fighting chance. The goal is to guide them into active recovery.
How do first responders help those in active addiction when a crime is committed? Part of the issue with this question is the stigma of addicts and crime. Addiction, in itself, is not a crime. It doesn’t matter what the addiction is; it is a mental medical health condition. The complexity of addiction makes it very difficult for first responders to do their jobs. The lines are blurring, and the positions on the front lines are changing.
Addiction is not an issue of morals and willpower.
There are multiple ways that intervention happens. Instead of arrest, those who are active in their addiction can be placed in a diversion program. There are now treatment pods in jails. People who want help can get into recovery, whether it’s initiated by law enforcement or through proactive efforts in the community to build awareness.
First responders’ primary job is to save someone’s life no matter what. They are universally seeing that addiction doesn’t fit into the category of crime. First responders are now a vital link to changing the stigma of addiction and helping people find recovery.
For additional reading on this subject, check out these articles:
First Responders: https://www.hsdl.org
American Security Council Foundation https://ascfusa.org/