How 'Safe Stations' offer hope amidst opioid epidemic
The goal of Safe Stations is to provide a safe and low-stress option for individuals seeking treatment for their drug addiction
As of April 2017, every fire and police station in Anne Arundel County (Md.) and the independent city of Annapolis (Md.) became a Safe Station for individuals looking for assistance to start their path to recovery from heroin/opioid addiction.
“The fire station has always been a central part of most communities. You got your bike tire fixed there or you went there if you didn’t feel safe,” said Captain Russell Davies, public information officer with the Anne Arundel County Fire Department. “We saw the Safe Stations concept as a natural extension of that feeling people have about a fire station.”
Firefighters and police officers in both localities are ready 24/7/365 to provide initial assessment of those people addicted to opioids and then activate a system involving a coalition of community resources to quickly get those people into drug treatment, regardless of their ability to pay for treatment.
Why Safe Stations?
Overdoses and overdose deaths from heroin/opioid addiction are mushrooming problems in Anne Arundel and Annapolis, as they are in many cities and towns across the United States.
From 2014 to 2017, there were 2,831 reported overdoses and 376 overdose deaths in Anne Arundel County and Annapolis. The real illuminating data points are that 1,097 of those overdoses and 155 of those deaths happened in 2017 alone. As of Jan. 23, 2018, there had been 40 overdoses and five overdose deaths. At this point in 2017 – before the launch of Safe Stations – there were 56 drug overdoses and 5 overdose deaths.
“Like every other fire department in the country, we were struggling to keep up with the problem and the strain on our people,” Davies said. “You have to be concerned about compassion fatigue setting in, especially when you’re responding to the same individuals over and over. So, we saw Safe Stations as something where we could help in a better way.”
According to Davies, the Anne Arundel Safe Stations program is modeled after a successful program started by the fire department in Manchester, New Hampshire. “We heard about their program and we contacted them about the particulars of what they were doing, and then we customized the program to meet our needs here in Anne Arundel County,” Davies reported.
According to Davies, the timeline for making Safe Stations a reality was itself an amazing example of inter-agency cooperation.
“We had two fire departments, two police departments, the county’s Crisis Response Team (CRT), the State’s Attorney Office and hospital representatives in that first meeting on Mar. 6, 2017, to talk about how to address this drug crisis in our county,” Davies noted. “And after 40 minutes, we had agreement on the basic framework for the Safe Stations program. I’ve never seen anything like it in my career.”
How Safe Stations work
The goal of Safe Stations is to provide a safe and low-stress option for individuals seeking treatment for their drug addiction. Any resident of Anne Arundel County or Annapolis who is the victim of a heroin/opioid addiction, and finds the courage to ask for help, can go to any fire or police station in those localities and speak with the personnel on duty.
When they arrive at a Safe Station, EMS personnel conduct a basic medical assessment to ensure that the person does not have a medical condition requiring immediate treatment and transportation to an appropriate medical facility and alert the CRT.
If treatment and transportation is required, the CRT responds to the medical facility to ensure a smooth transfer of the patient.
When there’s no immediate medical issue, the CRT responds to the Safe Station and works with the individual to determine the best treatment resources and destination available.
Individuals seeking assistance are required to drop any needles or other drug paraphernalia into a sharps collection container located in each Safe Station.
If the person seeking assistance for drug addiction has any illegal substances on their person, the appropriate law enforcement agency is contacted to respond – only to properly dispose of the illegal substances.
“With this program, we’ve done everything we can to remove those barriers that keep people from seeking the treatment they need,” Davis said.
Here’s a snapshot of the eight months in 2017 that Safe Stations were open in Anne Arundel County and Annapolis:
- In 462 cases, someone walked into a Safe Station seeking assistance and personnel began the process.
- Of those, 385 cases were assessed by a CRT member who responded to the Safe Station
- In the 77 other cases, the individual left the Safe Station before being assessed by a CRT member (17 percent of total cases).
With a short roll-out period, there wasn’t time for much training and preparation for fire and police department personnel. “Everyone knew we were in the midst of a growing epidemic,” Davies said. “We basically gave them a flowsheet and some basic guidelines, and they went at it as best they could.”
And it didn’t take long for the program to see its first customer. Within an hour of the launch of Safe Stations last April, a woman who learned about the program on Facebook walked into Anne Arundel County’s Brooklyn Park fire station asking for help. The next day, a man who had accompanied her returned, acknowledging that he, too, needed treatment.
Davies noted that fire department personnel had different attitudes toward the Safe Stations concept when they launched the program.
“You had people who were very accepting of this new role and the chance to help people get better, not just keep them from dying from an overdose,” he said.
There were also personnel who were concerned about the safety issues in having drugs or drug paraphernalia coming into the fire station, while others were concerned about the stigma associated with drug addiction. Some even wondered if addicts would come to the station to “case the place,” so they could come back later and steal fire department property to sell for drugs.
“Many people probably had the image of what they thought these people coming for help would look like, you know, the strung-out junkie who’s shooting up in a back alley or a vacant house,” Davies noted.
That last misconception is one of many that have been upended by Anne Arundel’s Safe Stations experience. “Our people have seen that many of these people coming in for help are regular people,” Davies said. “They’re trying to hold down a job and keep their family together while they’re struggling with an addiction that in many cases started with a drug prescription for pain.”
When asked what he felt were some keys to the success of the Safe Stations program to date, Davies answered without hesitation, “It’s been our people stepping up and taking on this new role, despite whatever reservations or pre-conceived notions they might have had,” he said. “And right along with that has been their empathy for the people who’ve come into their fire station.”
Davies went on to say that any department looking to begin a Safe Stations program in their city or town should look at what other departments are doing but modify for their unique needs. “We heard about Manchester’s program and brought it here and made it our own. I encourage other fire departments to do the same. Don’t just take somebody else’s program and throw it out there. It has to fit your community’s needs and your department’s capabilities.”
Davies has spoken with five or six fire departments that heard about Anne Arundel’s Safe Stations program. They are interested in learning more about to modify the concept to help citizens in their locality get treatment for heroin/opioid addiction.
“And isn’t that what we do?” Davies asked. “We take what another department has done, and we make it our own, and maybe we even make it better. And then another department comes along and does the same thing with what we’ve done. And that’s how we make progress in the fire service.”
Contact Captain Russell Davies at 410- 222-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.