IAFF’s Response to the Opioid Crisis

Author: IAFF Staff

April 26, 2018

In recent years, opioid overdoses have risen sharply in the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, fire fighters and paramedics responding to overdose calls are some of the people most affected by this deadly trend. The IAFF is working to change that.

In August 2017, law enforcement officials, union representatives, paramedics and fire fighters attending the IAFF Health and Safety Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, and discussed the opioid crisis and outlined current efforts to reduce the problem and help fire fighters and paramedics affected by this crisis.

Evaluating the Extent of the Problem

Today, drug overdoses kill more people in the United States than car crashes and firearms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one person dies from an opioid overdose every 17 minutes. But how did the situation become so dire? As a special agent at the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington, D.C., Jason Capstraw provided some insight into the roots of North America’s opioid crisis.

Firefighters standing around a fire truck who play a role in the opioid crisis

According to Capstraw, prescription drug abuse is driven by two things: indiscriminate prescribing and criminal activity. Indiscriminate prescribing means that doctors are much quicker to dole out dangerous opioids. In many cases, this is motivated by the money they receive from pharmaceutical companies for prescribing their medications. In others, it’s a simple misunderstanding of the intense and potentially addictive effects of opioids. Criminal activity in the use and trafficking of illegal, unregulated opioids — such as heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil — is also largely to blame for the uptick in opioid use. However, this usually isn’t criminal activity for its own sake. According to Capstraw, nearly 85 percent of people who become addicted to prescription opioids go on to use cheaper street varieties, including heroin.

As opioid use increases, overdoses inevitably rise. This means that more fire fighters and paramedics are responding to overdose cases. Rob Weeks, the president of Vancouver IAFF’s Local 18, has witnessed the dramatic increase in overdose-related incidents in recent years. In Fire Hall 2, one of Canada’s most active fire stations, the call volume recently reached over 1,400 calls in one month. Most of these calls were for opioid overdoses.

Firehouses across the United States and Canada are overwhelmed by spikes in overdose cases. Without the proper resources, this surge has exhausted fire departments. More and more traumatic, opioid-related calls come with increased safety risks to the physical and mental health of IAFF members.

Protecting Fire Fighter Safety

As opioid overdoses increase, so do the number of overdoses that fire fighters respond to. And with the advent of stronger, deadlier street opioids comes new risks to fire fighter and paramedic health. Fentanyl, an opioid that has grown in availability in recent years, is between 20 and 40 percent stronger than heroin. Carfentanil, a stronger opioid than fentanyl that is traditionally used as an elephant tranquilizer, is also making its way to the streets. Because these opioids are highly potent, just a few grains inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or accidentally ingested can cause overdose. Most cases of fentanyl and carfentanil overdose require multiple doses of Narcan, if the lifesaving antidote can revive the victim at all.

Fire fighters and paramedics on the scene of opioid overdoses must take special precautions to avoid coming into contact with these deadly substances. DEA Agent Kenneth Miles, a fentanyl expert, advises that IAFF members wear protective gloves or masks at the scene of overdose cases. He also strongly urges them to avoid touching their mouth or nose, eating, drinking, smoking, or using hand sanitizer after any overdose cases. By staying vigilant, fire fighters, paramedics, and the people who care about them can help minimize the risk of physical harm of responding to opioid overdoses.

Maintaining Mental Health

Opioid overdose cases don’t just threaten the physical health of fire fighters and paramedics — they can also do lasting damage to mental health and well-being. Jason Lynch, a fire fighter in Vancouver, explains how he grappled with opioid overdose calls and found a way to cope with them.

Even though Lynch began working at a notoriously difficult fire station station with a positive, eager attitude, he was slowly disheartened by a steady stream of overdoses. Many of the people he brought back from the brink of death overdosed repeatedly. Once, he revived the same man twice in a single day.

“I started questioning the job I was doing,” Lynch says. “Are we making a difference at all? The same people are doing the same thing every day. It never ended.”

Gradually, his struggles at work started to affect his behavior at home. His patience wore thin, and he was constantly frustrated. The transition from work to home became increasingly difficult. Eventually, he became numb to what he witnessed daily.

It wasn’t until Lynch went on a yoga retreat for his honeymoon that he realized how he could work through his compassion fatigue. When he brought people back from overdose, he expected his efforts to change them — that they would give up their addictions and go on to lead fuller, more meaningful lives. He was trying to solve their problems, and it was making him miserable. To perform his work, Lynch had to let go of his expectations about what people he helped would do or not do after his interaction with them. Once he did that, his work became rewarding once more.

The work of a fire fighter or paramedic has always been difficult. But with the opioid crisis ushering in new mental and physical challenges, it’s more important now than ever to make sure the men and women who work so hard to help us help themselves, too. If you or an IAFF member you know is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression or addiction, the IAFF Center of Excellence is here to help.

The IAFF Center of Excellence is a substance use and mental health rehabilitation center designed specifically for fire fighters and paramedics. With evidence-based treatments and compassionate care, we can provide the treatment that IAFF members need to get back to the work they love. Each call is completely confidential, and there’s no requirement to begin treatment. Reach out to an intake coordinator today for more information.

Medical Disclaimer: The IAFF Center of Excellence aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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