DARKE COUNTY — First responders arriving to treat drug overdoses find themselves adjusting to a new reality.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) say fentanyl and its analogs pose a potential hazard to law enforcement, public health workers, and first responders who could unknowingly come into contact with these drugs in their different forms. Police working dogs are also at risk of exposure.
Possible exposure routes vary based on the source of the fentanyl. While dermal absorption of fentanyl commonly occurs through prescribed use of the drug, inhalation of powder is the most likely exposure route for illicitly-manufactured fentanyl. Inhalation exposure can quickly result in respiratory depression. Exposure via inhalation or skin absorption can be deadly.
First responders may also encounter violent behavior from the user when naloxone is used to reverse respiratory depression as it may put the user into withdrawal.
NIOSH says the risks associated with fentanyl and its analogs highlight the need for first responders to perform a risk assessment on each crime scene.
However, by having to tread more cautiously into scenes where drug use is suspected, it makes the task of saving lives all the more difficult.
So far in 2017, the Darke County Coroner’s Office has investigated approximately 16 to 18 deaths as being caused by drug overdoses — already exceeding the entire total for 2016. Many more overdose deaths in the county have been prevented by the timely use of revival medications such as naloxone (Narcan).
With the increase in drug usage in Darke County, so too has the risk to the county’s first responders increased.
Greenville Township Rescue Chief Brian Phillips says his department is already working to update procedures to deal with potential exposure to the 40 or so EMT’s in his building.
“There’s been a lot of things we’ve been discussing, recommendations, not things we’re going to make mandatory at this point,” he said. “We’re very safety-oriented people. With the recommendations out there, I think our paramedics are going to make the right choice.”
Phillips said the department will utilize the equipment at their disposal to combat the threat.
“We’ve told our paramedics to consider wearing goggles, surgical masks or masks in general,” he said. “If we see a large amount of residue, we can back out and then dress appropriately. That might require putting a gown on or a respirator. Sometimes that could mean putting on a full SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) like a fire fighter wears. Every situation can be different and so unpredictable.”
Phillips is concerned not only for the safety of his people, but for bystanders and passersby who may find themselves exposed to the toxic substances at scenes where drugs have been ingested.
“It’s amazing how potent the synthetic fentanyls are,” he said. “It’s scary how just one little granule can be inhaled and actually effect the person who’s inhaled it. It doesn’t take much.”
Mindy Saylor, director of Darke County’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management Agency said she has recently met with emergency services in the county, including fire, rescue, law enforcement agencies, the coroner’s office, as well as Wayne HealthCare, to discuss ways to keep first responders safe.
“The goal is always to ensure our responders have the tools and knowledge to do their jobs and go home at the end of the day,” she said. “While responding to drug related calls is not something new, the frequency and the now common use of high potency drugs such as fentanyl or carfentanil, have created a new challenge for responders. We need to ensure that everyone is educated of the dangers, warning signs to look for and know how best to protect themselves from unintended exposures.”
EMS Units in Darke County
Bradford Fire and Rescue
Gettysburg Fire and Rescue
Greenville Township Rescue
Union City, Ohio, Fire and Rescue
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