RALEIGH — Several police and fire departments in the Triangle are giving their front-line officers a device that revives people who have overdosed on heroin or prescriptions drugs.
Paramedics have carried Naloxone (pronounced Na-LOX-own) in their ambulances for decades. But police officers and firefighters are often the first to arrive at the scene of an overdose, and proponents say it makes sense that they, too, have the drug and know how to use it.
“It builds a time bridge for someone in that immediate crisis until we can get them to the hospital,” said Carrboro police Capt. Chris Atack. “Naloxone gives you that extra time.”
Police and firefighters in Carrboro have been trained in using Naloxone, as have emergency medical technicians with fire departments throughout Wake County. Police in Hillsborough will receive training soon.
The use of Naloxone by police and firefighters was made possible by a change in state law last year that broadened who could use the drug. The law, designed to allow heroin and pain-pill users and their friends and family to use Naloxone in emergencies, cleared up legal questions about whether first responders could also use the drug, said Fred Wells Brason II, president and chief executive officer of Project Lazarus, a nonprofit public health organization.
The new tool for first responders comes amid a spike in heroin use in the Triangle and nationwide. Police report large increases in heroin seizures, and heroin overdose deaths nearly doubled statewide in 2012, to 148, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. The surge in heroin use follows what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called a nationwide epidemic of overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers such as OxyContin, methadone and hydrocodone.
Carrboro is not immune, noted Atack, who says he’s seen Naloxone’s effectiveness.
“Three years ago, we had one child in middle school, lying in the hallway, unresponsive,” he said. “The paramedics administered Naloxone and, boom, she came right out of it.”
A person overdoses when a narcotic tells the brain to stop breathing, said Jeff Hammerstein, communications chief with Wake County Emergency Medical Services. Naloxone, also called Narcan, works by interrupting the receptors in the body that are reading those signals and puts a stop to the effect.
Naloxone has been used for more than 40 years to revive drug overdose victims, primarily by emergency medical services, other medical professionals and in limited Naloxone distribution programs, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The N.C. Medical Board issued a statement in 2008 that advocated making Naloxone available to individuals in a position to assist someone suffering from an overdose. The board re-issued its position last year after members said they were concerned about the rise in overdose deaths across the state over the past decade as “a result of both prescription and non-prescription drugs.”
Raleigh police won’t carry Naloxone for now
Not everyone thinks police officers should carry Naloxone. The Raleigh Police Department has no plans to train its officers on using the antidote, said spokesman Jim Sughrue, even after members of the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition, a statewide public health and drug policy reform organization based in Durham, held a two-day presentation for the department earlier this month.
“It seems best left to emergency medical services personnel,” Sughrue said. “There are lots of policy and legal questions that would have to be answered before a decision could be made one way or the other. We feel the need is already being addressed by EMS and Fire.”
The Naloxone kit is about the size of an eyeglass case. It contains a vial of the drug and a nasal atomizer for two doses, one for each nostril. The atomizer looks like a syringe with a foam tip at the end instead of a needle. The kits, which were recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, cost about $23 each.
In announcing the approval on April 2, the FDA reported that more than 16,000 people die each year in the United States because of opioid overdoses.
The Carrboro department’s 24 patrol officers, three community service officers and two school resource officers will be equipped with a Naloxone kit by July. All of the Hillsborough Police Department’s 28 sworn employees, including 17 patrol officers, will begin training on Naloxone in the coming weeks, said Lt. Robert Whitted.
Whitted said the training includes helping officers recognize the signs of a drug overdose as well as how to use Naloxone and how a person reacts after ingesting it.
“The good part, and what I like about it, is you cannot hurt someone,” Whitted said. “Cops are cops. If they misread the symptoms and use it, it’s like shooting water up someone’s nose.”
Tessie Castillo with the Harm Reduction Coalition agreed.
“There are no side effects,” Castillo said. “The only side effect is withdrawal when a person is addicted. If someone is addicted to an opioid and Naloxone is administered, there could be extreme withdrawal with vomiting, fever, the shakes, everything.”
Carrboro’s resource officers who work at the high school and middle school are interested in having Naloxone “because they see all sorts of crisis situations,” Atack said.
“How can you not be for it, right?” he asked. “If we save one life in 10 years, then the time, effort and resources will be well worth it.”