Heroin use has been on the rise across the U.S. since 2007, with more than 660,000 admitted users between 2011 and 2012, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In one week last January, 22 people in western Pennsylvania died of an overdose of heroin and fentanyl.
To combat deaths caused by heroin and other narcotic overdoses, the Pitcairn Police Department is partnering with Forbes Hospital to train and equip officers to administer opioid “antidote,” Narcan.
Narcan, also known by its common name naloxone, is an opioid-antagonist, which means it blocks drugs like heroin from bonding with receptors in the brain, says Forbes EMS Medical Director Dr. Daniel Schwartz. According to Schwartz, narcotics slow down the body’s breathing and heartbeat. When taken in large enough doses, these drugs, prescription or illegal, stop a person’s heartbeat and breathing entirely.
Pitcairn Police Chief Scott Farally formerly worked with emergency medical services, and says he saw the value of Narcan firsthand. That is why he has made it a priority for his department of three full-time and eleven part-time officers to be equipped with Narcan and know when and how to use it.
“This training…it’s very valuable, it’s an asset to the community, I believe, and all throughout the nation,” Farally said. “Substance abuse is not only on the rise in Allegheny County, but if you look, on a daily basis, all throughout the nation, there is a large amount of abuse with narcotics, may it be designer or prescription.”
When someone stops breathing due to an overdose, immediate action is required to prevent brain damage or death, says Farally.
“Police officers are always in their cars, so they’re usually the first to arrive on-scene,” he explained. “That five or six minutes between the time the officer arrives on scene and the ambulance arrives can be the difference between life or death.”
Pitcairn officers met with emergency medical professionals Thursday for a half-hour training session. Schwartz says the training will be adequate for officers to be able to safely administer the drug, which can be injected nasally and has no serious side effects in small doses.
“People worry that there is a police officer, who is untrained in medical care, providing a medication,” Schwartz said. “And I think the thing to stress is that this is an extraordinarily low-risk intervention.”
Farally hopes to soon have a Narcan kit in every Pitcairn patrol car. However, the program’s full implementation might be delayed while the police department and Forbes Hospital wait for Pennsylvania’s legislature to catch up.
There are currently three bills awaiting passage by the legislature that will give programs like the one in Pitcairn a “thumbs up,” as Schwartz described it. House Bill 2090, Senate Bill 1164, and SB 1376 all contain language that will officially allow police and fire department personnel to carry and administer naloxone.
Schwartz emphasized that the Pitcairn program is safe, because officers will be under the supervision of medical professionals.
“So what we’re doing is basically partnering with the hospital, and direct physician oversight, where the hospital is providing the medication and I am acting as the prescriber for the police officers to use it,” Schwartz said. “This is not intended to replace the paramedic. There will be a paramedic coming in all cases. It’s a matter of, ‘Can we reverse the narcotics quickly enough for this person to survive the event, long enough for the paramedics to come on to the scene.”
Senate Bill 1164 has passed the Senate and been approved by the House Appropriations Committee. It is currently awaiting a final vote.