Four communities north and west of Boston are collaborating on a plan to fight heroin and other opioid overdoses, which includes the use by first responders of a life-saving overdose antidote.
Since July of last year, thanks to a $100,000 grant from the state Department of Public Health, Watertown, Everett, Somerville, and Cambridge have been part of a Massachusetts Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative.
A rash of heroin overdoses across the state within the past few months has prompted many cities to raise awareness of opioid overdose dangers and to push for more emergency responders to be equipped with Narcan, a nasally applied version of the drug naloxone, which helps counter the effects of an opioid overdose.
Somerville and Everett fire officials said they are close to making an arrangement that would allow firefighters to be equipped with the drug, and Watertown Fire Department firefighters have had it available since Feb. 20.
In Cambridge, one engine and two paramedic crews are already equipped with the drug and there are no immediate plans to expand, according to Gerry Mahoney, Fire Department operations chief.
The drug was successfully used to counteract an overdose on the first weekend it was available in Watertown, Fire Chief Mario Orangio said.
“We’ve already seen the benefit of having it on the fire apparatus,” Orangio said. “It’s not the answer, that’s for sure. It doesn’t really fix the problem, but it can save a life.”
Fire officials in each city said they have been looking to have firefighters equipped with the drug for years, but ran into hurdles with the state’s Department of Public Health.
The state has run a pilot program since 2006 that trained firefighters in five communities to apply the drug, and appointed a medical director to oversee its use. But some communities outside the pilot program, including Watertown, Everett, and Somerville, have been unable to meet the state requirements to have firefighters use it.
But officials have reported significant progress in recent weeks. In Watertown, Orangio said he had previously tried to join the pilot program, but was told the city did not fit state criteria.
He reached out to Mt. Auburn Hospital earlier this year, which agreed to use its medical control license to make the drug available to firefighters.
Fire officials in Everett and Somerville said they believed they were close to making an arrangement that would allow firefighters to be equipped with the drug.
Unlike Watertown, which operates its own primary ambulance, Everett and Somerville both use Cataldo Ambulance Service, and the state requires cities without their own ambulance service to have a medical director to oversee the distribution of naloxone.
“It’s something we’re actively pursuing right now. We’ve had a serious increase in overdoses,” said Everett Fire Chief David Butler. “It’s a matter of getting a medical director and we think that could happen soon.”
Butler and Somerville Fire Chief Kevin Kelleher both said they are working with the Cambridge Health Alliance, which operates hospitals in Cambridge, Somerville, and Everett, to find a way to train firefighters and equip them with the drug. Ambulance EMTs have naloxone on hand, but fire engines often arrive on the scene first, Kelleher said.
“This stuff is available at community meetings to families and friends, which is great, but we see these incidents happening. Our guys have seen firsthand how well it works. It is a little frustrating,” Kelleher said.
Learn to Cope and AIDS Action Committee, both of which operate out of Cambridge, offer training sessions on how to administer the drug and distribute it to people who are close to someone suffering from addiction.
While expanding the availability of naloxone has been the focus for fire departments, the four-city collaborative is also looking to increase awareness to prevent overdoses, and to reduce the misuse of prescription drugs, said Jamie Stein, coordinator for the collaborative.
“Narcan is important because it makes recovery possible, but what’s more important is making sure people aren’t at risk of overdose,” Stein said.
One challenge cities face is a reduction in available resources. The detox treatment center at Somerville Hospital closed in 2009, and other hospitals have reduced the number of available treatment beds.
“Part of the conundrum is lots of services are being cut,” said Patty Contente, clinical youth specialist at Somerville’s Health Department.
“Access to beds, treatments, and resources has been reduced the last couple of years. But there are opportunities for recovery in the community.”
Dr. Mark Albanese, who oversees treatment services for the Cambridge Health Alliance, said some resources have been cut, but beds are still available for those who need treatment.
“There’s been some bad news,” he said. “Resources have gone away; we’ve lost inpatient beds. But there still are detox beds available, and if people need to access those, they should.”