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Opioid Crisis Affects First Responders and the Whole Community

First Responders repeatedly answer calls to accidental overdoses, and the stress from feeling responsible — along with other factors — put police, fire and EMS right in the middle of the opioid epidemic.

The national opioid crisis has affected countless lives in the United States and first responders are among them.

More than 130 people die each day after overdosing on opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and first responders are likely on the scene of many of those overdoses. The stresses of responding repeatedly to try to save someone from dying of an overdose is just part of the risk that first responders face when it comes to addiction.

First responders have long had a history of being susceptible to negative impacts on their mental health because of the nature of their jobs. Responding time and again to overdoses, sometimes involving the same people, can create burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder. There is also the very real possibility of the first responder falling victim to a “contact overdose”

In Lucas County, Ohio, first responders were called to the scenes of 3,000 overdoses between 2014 and 2016, which means about four calls per day during that period. “If something happens to them, I feel like it’s on my shoulders,” Lucas County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Johnson told the publication EMS1.

And like anyone, and perhaps more so because of the nature of their jobs, first responders are also not immune to addiction themselves. According to Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches, a Florida alcohol and drug rehabilitation center, up to 29 percent of firefighters abuse alcohol and up to 10 percent may be abusing drugs. Behavioral Health also reports that among police officers, up to 36 percent abuse alcohol after four years on the job, and among emergency medical technicians, as many as 40 percent engage in risky alcohol or drug use.

“Opioids are a big issue for the community in general,” said Mike Reilly, executive director of Virginia Fire Programs. Reilly was tasked by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to address mental health in the fire services. “Certainly, we in the fire service respond to quite a bit of that and are not immune to the general stresses and challenges that the general community faces. In fact, we may be more stressed based on the things we see each day and as a result might be more prone to that.”

Reilly has been in public safety for 40 years and said he still recalls “very vividly” the first fatality he’d seen. “It was a pedestrian hit by a train and those types of things and images stay with you.”
He said first responders often get into the professions because they are compassionate people and want to help others, and that can translate into them being negatively affected by the traumatic events they witness.

Public safety officials often are perceived as being invincible in terms of dealing with some of the tragedy they see, and they sometimes feel they should be, but it’s not a realistic expectation. That mentality has held through decades but is beginning to change.

The fire services may have an advantage in that they create somewhat of a “family atmosphere,” by being at the station for long periods of time, while law enforcement and EMS go from one call to the next and then home. The fire service personnel can share their feelings and talk through the issues.

Many public safety agencies are creating crisis response teams, where personnel can get that time with peers to discuss and realize that what they are feeling is normal.

“I think the technology both in police and fire as well as the understanding of PTSD is really a huge change in public safety these days,” Reilly said. “We’re educating our personnel that it’s OK to ask for help that it’s not something to be ashamed of.”

He said the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services just hosted a conference for post-traumatic stress disorder that attracted more than 400 law enforcement officers from around the country to discuss stress-related issues and how to develop positive coping skills.

“One thing statistically that is pretty depressing for all of us is that last year we had more firefighters commit suicide than die in the line of duty,” Reilly said.

The opioid issue affects everyone in all professions. For the first time in U.S. history last year, the odds of dying of an accidental opioid overdose have surpassed the odds of dying in a car crash. For that, a health-care waste services provider, Stericycle, partnered with the National Safety Council (NSC) to develop an “opioids at work” Employer Toolkit.
The kit includes educational materials and a mail back program that allows employers and employees to dispose of opioids properly.

“About 75 percent of employees have been directly impacted in some way by opioid misuse and yet employers didn’t feel well prepared to address the issue,” said Selin Hoboy, vice president of government affairs at Stericycle of a survey done by the NSC. They were feeling unprepared and didn’t have programs set aside for the issue.

Lorraine Martin, president and CEO of NSC, said the toolkit would fit in any workplace and even a first-responder agency. “Any occupation that’s high stress, high risk, is a place for us to pay special attention to the health and well-being of the employees,” she said. “We ask them to do challenging things in very urgent and high-stress environments and we have to ask, ‘Are they going home safely and are we getting them the services they need?’”

Reilly agreed the toolkit would fit anywhere. “Yes, absolutely. Any mechanism to eliminate or dispose of medications is a positive way to get rid of them.”