Fall River brings fire stations in fight against opioids


FALL RIVER – Earlier this year, Fall River firefighters responded to an opioid overdose.

While caring for the patient, two of them started talking with a passer-by, who said he didn’t want to continue living that way.

So they told him about the ministry’s safe station program.

“They said,” If you are serious and are really looking for help, we will be back at the station shortly and you are more than welcome to report to the central fire station later today. and we can try to get that help for you. … That day, this gentleman presented himself to the central fire station, ”said fire brigade lieutenant William Lonardo to the press service.

Last I heard from Lonardo, the man had been linked to treatment and was doing well.

The city hopes such interactions will become more common as awareness builds around its Safe Stations initiative.

Launched in March, the program creates safe access points for drug addiction and mental health treatment at fire stations, and builds on similar programs implemented in Providence, RI, Manchester, NH and Nashua, NH.

As Massachusetts continues to feel the ramifications of the opioid epidemic, communities like Fall River are pursuing new approaches and tools to help first responders cope with the crisis.

The city recorded 72 overdose deaths among residents in 2020, compared to 67 in 2019 and 55 the previous year.

While similar treatment access programs have become common among police departments in the area, Fall River’s new initiative would be the first implemented by a fire department in Bay State.

“I think the great thing is, what is different with the clients we work with, I think they feel more comfortable coming to a fire station than a police station,” said said Fall River Fire Chief John Lynch. “It’s nothing against the police department, but obviously they represent law enforcement, and the fire department is a much more stimulating place.”

Between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., people with drug addiction can visit any fire station in Fall River for help or resources without fear of being reported to the police.

Those who seek help are first assessed for any urgent medical concerns, in which case they are taken to a local hospital.

If the patient does not require medical attention, behavioral health and homelessness service provider Steppingstone Inc. sends a trained recovery coach to the station to speak with them.

The coach can help the client find a bed in a drug rehabilitation center or inpatient treatment program, or connect the client to other community resources.

“We respond to overdoses time and time again on medical rescues, on engine companies in this city. It is no stranger to us, but our usefulness is limited. … Narcan’s administration is a temporary fix,” Lonardo mentioned.

He added: “This desire to want to be more useful goes through the safe stations, and we are able to help these patients in a way that we have never been able to do before.”

Between March 1 and August 26, 35 people sought help at the town’s fire stations, according to Steppingstone, and of those, 25 people gained access to additional treatment at various facilities, including SSTAR, a local drug treatment program. One patient was included in treatment in Rhode Island.

So far, the response to the initiative has been generally positive.

“I think there aren’t a lot of communities that don’t see this as a concern. I think every community is equally affected by substance use with concomitant mental health,” said Jaime Shorten, deputy director emergency service programs. at Boston Medical Center.

“So the goal here is really to raise awareness of that, to support this non-judgmentally, as equals, and to connect people to the resources that are really already established. “

Many existing treatment access initiatives in Massachusetts are modeled after a program started by the Gloucester Police Department in 2015 that allowed people with drug addiction to seek help at the station without being charged.

This led to the formation of the Police Assisted Drug Addiction and Recovery Initiative.

In February 2020, Gloucester Police Chief Edward Conley launched a new Community Impact Unit to expand awareness and focus on a wider range of concerns, such as homelessness and mental illness. .

With the change, the department hired a community navigator, Tito Rodriguez, who builds relationships with residents to identify people in need of assistance.

Rodriguez, a trained recovery trainer, is not a sworn police officer.

As of July 2021, it had recorded 910 interactions to connect community members with services, according to the department, such as housing assistance, employment resources, recovery assistance and aftercare. after overdoses.

He also helped put 75 people directly into drug treatment.

“We don’t wait for them to come to us, we go to them. And it is first about developing rapport and trust, and for them to understand that the police department is there to help them in. their process, ”Conley mentioned.

The partners leading the Safe Stations Project in Fall River note that the choice to work with the fire department was intentional, as not everyone feels safe going to a police station to get help. aid.

And there is evidence of emerging racial disparities in access to programs.

a evaluation of a program administered by the Brockton Police Department showed that 78% of people seeking help at the train station between 2016 and 2018 were Caucasian.

But in 2019, only about 36% of the city’s residents were white, according to census estimates.

In Manchester, New Hampshire, around 86% of customers who sought help under the Fire Department’s Safe Stations program were white, an evaluation found, and about 85% of residents there were white in 2019.

Michael Bryant, Steppingstone Inc.’s peer recovery program project manager and recovery person, said if he had to choose he would rather seek help at a fire station.

On the flip side, Conley argues that police interact more frequently with townspeople who may need these services.

“By our nature, we are in the community. Even when we don’t answer calls, we’re walking, biking, we’re in schools thanks to the School Resource Officer program, ”said Conley. “And I think that gives us, it seems to me, just a little head start on building a relationship of trust with this population.”

While organizers and the Fall River recovery community are optimistic about the potential impact of the Safe Stations program, it is not a quick fix.

They still face the limitations and barriers of the broader behavioral health system, which have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was difficult to find beds, and this is something that recovery coaches have come across just in terms of finding beds.… [Clients are] coming to the fire station ready and willing, maybe for the first time, to get help, “said Karen Phillips of Steppingstone.” And then it gets a little difficult and frustrating for them when they can’t find bed. “

The key to making this work has been collaboration, the organizers said, and for other municipalities interested in implementing a safe resorts initiative, building strong partnerships between local recovery programs and providers. treatment will be essential.

While the bed shortage is a barrier, officials believe having another access point for treatment will help keep patients away from overworked emergency departments. Stephanie Perry, addiction nurse specialist at Sainte-Anne Hospital, described the program as a “gift”, both to patients and to the community.

“Even though there is no access to a bed at that point… they develop a relationship with the recovery coach that will last much longer than that initial encounter. They develop trust with the recovery coach. “said Perry.

“And now they know it’s a safe place they can go and access treatment without having to sit in an emergency room and pretend they’re suicidal when in reality they just want to save their lives. “

– Meg McIntyre, State House Press Service

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