Drug overdose deaths have become so common in America that they hardly make the news. But the abuse of medically prescribed opiates and the reemergence of illegal heroin are alarming trends that have gotten the attention of communities everywhere. Fayetteville even established a Mayoral task force to combat opioid abuse.
“I’m excited to learn that Fayetteville is a leader in implementing innovative programs to combat this crisis,” said NC Attorney General Josh Stein during a recent meeting here.
Opioids are used to treat moderate to severe pain that may not respond well to other pain medications. Codeine, Morphine, Percocet, Fentanyl and heroin are in that class of drugs. Heroin, of course, is illegal but less expensive on the street than the others.
One of the significant effects of an opioid overdose is respiratory depression and/or arrest. Patients’ breathing slows or stops, which will eventually lead to death. Naloxone, also known by the trade name Narcan, is used to counteract life-threatening situations by allowing an overdose victim to breathe normally. It is non-addictive and now available without prescription in North Carolina.
Fayetteville Police were among the first in the state to be equipped with naloxone. It was authorized in 2013 by a change in state law that cleared the way for law enforcement to carry and administer naloxone.
“Our officers have saved 78 lives using naloxone in the last two years,” said Police Captain Lars Paul. Initially, the PD used medicinal injectors of Narcan that were donated to the department. Since then, $11,000 in drug forfeiture money was used to purchase Narcan nasal spray, which is far less expensive.
While police and EMS can administer naloxone to overdose patients, Fayetteville firefighters cannot. They are first responders who often arrive on the scene of medical emergencies before others. And all city firefighters are trained EMTs. Violent withdrawal symptoms can sometimes cause patients to be combative. Brian Pearce, Cape Fear Valley Medical Center Emergency Medical Service director, said that firefighter safety was the primary consideration in determining whether to authorize them to administer naloxone.
He said “firefighters can deliver appropriate patient care for opioid overdose patients in a safe manner without administering naloxone.” But, he added, it’s up to the fire department to decide if personnel should carry naloxone. Pearce administers laws and regulations of the county medical director.
“We have been trained in life support measures to increase the survivability of patients until they receive the correct level of advanced care that they may need,” stated Fire Department spokesman, Battalion Chief Michael Martin. Fire crews administer oxygen using bag valve masks, which breathe for patients when they cannot effectively breathe themselves. Fire Chief Ben Major was not available for comment, but it’s his decision whether to authorize firefighters to carry and use naloxone. “All they have to do is work with us to come up with a plan and protocols for administration and education and obtain the funding to purchase the naloxone,” Pearce said. “Then we would update the county EMS plan, and they would be allowed to administer naloxone.”