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Faces of Heroin: Emergency Workers Struggle to Cope With Crisis

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By Kerry Longobucco.
The ongoing heroin crisis is raising new challenges and concerns for first responders.

The horribly addictive drug has plagued the southern tier over the past few years. Since then, local fire departments have seen a spike in their call volume.

"We go to a lot of CPR calls. a lot of calls where people are down and not breathing," Chief Jeff Winchell, of the Endwell Fire Department, said.

First responders quickly realized that this drug doesn't discriminate.

"It's basically throughout our entire community," Winchell said. "From some of our nicest homes to some of our worst homes.

Emergency workers find themselves at these homes all too often. Department data shows Endwell Fire has already answered 30 heroin-related calls in 2015. Those calls are risky for first responders -- and they have to take extra precautions.

"I think it's more awareness than anything, just about safety precautions about different things that could be inside of the house, as far as needles," Captain Jacob Polovach, of the Endwell Fire Department, said. "And trying not to come in contact with that stuff."


But the dangers don't stop there. It's especially dangerous when emergency medical workers have to deploy Narcan on an overdose patient. It's a drug that saves lives -- but it can potentially put the lives of first responders in jeopardy.


"People don't realize that a lot of times, when people are revived with Narcan, they come up very violently," Winchell said.

"Some people, they wake up and realize that you just took away their high, and they become violent. You can be thrown off people, trying to hold them down and control them," Polovach said.

But when police officers arrive on similar scenes, they're typically armed with a Tazer, a nightstick and a gun. For firefighters and EMT's it's a much different scenario -- their only protection when responding to an overdose are medical gloves.

Because of the spike in these calls, emergency workers have had to change their response plan and procedures. Now, they're finding safety in numbers.

"A one on one confrontation is not a good confrontation for anyone in public safety -- police, fire or EMS," Winchell said. "So by changing our procedure, going to two people, or even waiting for the ambulance crew to get there with two or three more, when we walk in with four and five people, we do have a little bit of a margin of safety."

Still, the benefits of Narcan are many. Endwell Fire personnel don't currently carry it -- currently, they can only provide CPR while waiting for police or EMS crews to arrive on scene with the drug. But that may soon change.

"We are currently in the process of exploring a first responder program as we speak," Winchell said. "Hopefully, if it's adopted by the Board of Fire Commissioners in the next few months, our people will be trained, and we'll be carrying that."

But more than anything -- firefighters believe prevention is the only key to kicking this epidemic.

"The biggest thing that we can do is address the problem before the fire department needs to be called," Winchell, who also has a background in law enforcement, said. "Family members coming forward and actually having the conversation with people, and saying "Hey, you have a problem, and we want to help you" and getting those resources to them before they overdose."

Taking a proactive approach, to a deadly problem.