Rhode Island Fire Departments Come up with an Answer to the Opioid Addiction Epidemic

Manchester, Nashua and now Providence open doors to addicts with Safe Stations program.

by Jim McKay / February 16, 2018

Rhode Island saw 330 people die of drug overdoses in 2016 and was approaching the problem like everyone else, by arming first responders with Narcan. It was saving some lives but not addressing the addiction.

But a program, started in Manchester and then Nashua, N.H., seems to have turned the tables and is getting addicts the help they need whenever they are ready. Overdoses in Nashua have dropped by 17 percent since the program was initiated.

The Safe Stations program allows anyone with an addiction problem to show up at a fire station and immediately receive treatment and counseling for their addiction. Since Nashua fire departments opened their doors day and night in November 2016, they’ve had 1,400 visitors seeking help for addictions. About half are first-timers and the other half account for repeats.

Upon arrival at a Nashua fire station, anyone seeking help will be met by a professional within 15 minutes. Nashua Fire Rescue partnered with a local organization called Harbor Homes — which treats addiction, mental health problems, and low-income residents who need health or dental treatment — has doctors, a clinic and an 11-bed respite center on its premises.

Harbor Homes agreed to partner with Nashua fire and that upon receiving a call from a Safe Station would have a representative at the fire station within 15 minutes.

“I’m proud to report that almost a year-and-a- half later, the average response time is 15 minutes,” said Nashua Assistant Fire Chief Brian Rhodes.

 That 15-minute response time may be the key to the entire program, as it represents a window during which the addict is available and ready and willing to get treatment. “They’re not calling an 800 number and being put on hold; the process begins right then,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said that in Nashua, an average of five people a day are walking in for Safe Station help. “The concept is so simple, but behind the scenes is so complex and how it’s working is amazing,” he said. “I’ve been with the city starting my 32nd year in March and this is by far the greatest collaboration of public and private entities I’ve seen.”

Nashua is a city of about 87,000 residents and is about 34 square miles in size. The fire service doesn’t transport but uses an ambulance service. That was a key consideration when starting the program because of the time consideration.

Another key was the service provider, and Nashua felt good about Harbor Homes, which has been around for decades, Rhodes said. Manchester initially had problems with its provider, which ended up going bankrupt, forcing the state to step in.

The program is just beginning in Providence, which opened 12 fire stations as Safe Stations on Jan. 2. They’ve had three people come in so far — two this week.

“The formula is pretty simple,” said Providence Fire Capt. Zachariah Kenyon. “They come in, ring the bell and we immediately call a recovery coach.

“The key to this program working is that the person wants to have some help and this program targets that small window of opportunity, whatever time of day, when the person is ready to get help.”

The recovery coach arrives and takes the person off to the “the next step in recovery” depending on what time of day or night it is, and the person gets assessed by a clinician, who determines the next step.

“A lot of time people hit that window, but they don’t know where to go or who to call, and by the time they figure it out, the window is closed,” Kenyon said. “We’re giving people a known place to go during that small window when they know they want help.”

Providence is trying to get the word out via social media, print media and television. Manchester police are handing out cards and local businesses are being equipped with flyers and cards.

Kenyon expects more people to begin coming as they hear of the program. “Part of it is that once the word gets out that this is available, and they begin to hear what happens,” it will pick up. “It’s good and bad. We’re hoping people come in and get help but also that the drugs go away, and we have no business,” Kenyon said.