Md. fire chief: heroin problem 'here to stay'

The department is frustrated by growing overdoses tying up emergency services

By Jeffrey Alderton
Cumberland Times News

CUMBERLAND, Md. — Cumberland Fire Chief Donnie Dunn knows the local heroin problem isn't going away.

“It's a problem and it's going to be here," the chief said. “I don't see any solutions. It's unfortunate."

Overdoses involving heroin have become routine calls for the Cumberland Fire Department.

“The calls could be anywhere. They involve people of all ages and all income levels,” Dunn said.

Each drug overdose call — usually involving heroin — requires an ambulance and an engine company response.

“That means four people on each of the calls and each call takes at least an hour from the time of the call until the units are back in service,” Dunn said.

In some cases, the overdosed person regains consciousness and leaves prior to the arrival of the ambulance. And, on some calls, Dunn said the patient doesn't want to go to the hospital.

“Some of the calls involve patients who are combative and we have to wait until Cumberland Police control the situation until we can administer aid,” Dunn said.

In calls where someone has overdosed, the drug (Naloxone) is administered to reverse the effects of heroin. The lifesaving drug can quickly restore the breathing of a person who has overdosed on heroin or prescription opioid pain medication like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl or methadone, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The city of Cumberland has spent $4,879 on Narcan since the beginning of this year. The cost of a single dose is about $41.

The city's ambulance service has used Narcan 119 times in the first eight months of 2016.

In 2015, there were 49 Narcan administrations in the city from February through December.

Cumberland Police officers have also been trained and certified by the Allegany County Health Department to administer Narcan since July 2015.

"Our officers administered Naxolone/Narcan nine times in 2015 and 39 times this year as of Aug, 17," Capt. Greg Leake, Cumberland Police operations supervisor, said.

In Maryland, as of December 2015, pharmacies can dispense Narcan without a prescription to anyone trained or certified under the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's overdose response program.

Since March 2014, an estimated 23,000 people have been certified in the state to administer the drug.

In Allegany County, there are 597 people certified to administer Narcan after having been trained by the Allegany County Health Department, according to James Pyles, director of safety and security of the DHMH, who is the agency's lead spokesman on the heroin epidemic.

Of that number, 156 are law enforcement officers in Allegany County, Pyles said.

In 2014, the Maryland State Police became the first state police agency in the United States to train and equip troopers with Narcan.

Certification of Narcan is obtained by completing a one-hour block of training. Those certified upon completion of the training are provided a single dose of Narcan nasal spray and then have a standing order to obtain a prescription refill for Narcan at their expense.

Capt. Vince Pyle, the Cumberland Fire Department's emergency medical services officer, said “the dramatic increase in overdose-related calls has adversely impacted our operational ability.”

“These calls are very labor intensive, requiring additional required staff to successfully manage each event," Pyle said. “This reduces our availability for response to additional calls during the same period."

For the city ambulance crews, some of the locations and the victims are not unfamiliar.

“In some instances, we have had the same patient twice in one day. Some are recurring addresses and recurring patients,” Dunn said. "It can be very frustrating for our personnel to actually save a person's life only to be called again for the same person and for the same reason — drug overdose."

Copyright 2016 the Cumberland Times News

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