Drug epidemic now endangering first responders

July 15, 2017

Police officers and firefighters already have a dangerous job. When heading out to emergencies, they’re suited up with either bullet vests or fire resistant clothing and helmets to protect themselves.

But a new problem is endangering the lives of first responders.

They now, at times, must wear gloves and masks – and sometimes even fully protective moon suits with respirators – because of the growing opioid crisis in the region as stronger and more deadly drugs hit the streets.

That was made clear earlier this year when a police officer from East Liverpool, Ohio, nearly died when his unprotected skin came in contact with fentanyl during a drug arrest. He had to be administered naloxone, the antidote that reverses an opioid overdose, and taken to the hospital for further treatment. He should consider himself lucky that he was able to get back on the job a few days later, suffering no ill-effects from the drug.

The message is loud and clear that first responders now must protect themselves from being exposed to drugs at a crime scene.

Canonsburg police Chief Al Coghill heard that message months ago while working closely with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. In October, his department developed new policies and procedures with how to deal with unknown drug substances.

Basically, there’s now an assumption that every stamp bag police officers handle contains more than 50 percent of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl that has killed so many in the area.

They have two officers process a crime scene at one time in case of an accidental overdose. One officer wears gloves and sometimes a mask while the other supervises the collection.

“This has developed so much, you never know exactly what you are handling,” Coghill said. “We treat everything as if it has fentanyl.”

Firefighters in Washington are also taking similar precautions, since they respond to all overdose calls and are trained how to administer naloxone. Meanwhile, the firefighters even spend time picking up used needles and other paraphernalia left behind by heroin users at city playgrounds.

And just recently, North Strabane firefighters announced they have purchased ballistic vests for high-risk calls involving firearms.

What a sad indictment it is on our society that firefighters, whose jobs are primarily to put out fires or assist at car accidents, now must protect themselves from either accidentally overdosing or getting shot while responding to a call.

Other departments are waking up to this danger that is constantly evolving. Greene County Regional police Chief Michael Natale said they already have a policy in place with how to handle someone who is overdosing or intoxicated to protect police officers.

But more must be done, he said. They’re now looking at how to update those procedures, but he admitted that can be tough for a small police force that has many part-time officers working with different departments.

“We need to take into account what is going on when we are searching a car,” Natale said. “A little fentanyl on a fingertip can be deadly.”

These brave men and women do so much to protect us from danger. It’s a shame the drug epidemic has added to the long list of potential dangers for the people who put their lives at risk.



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