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Weymouth

Firefighters ramp up fight against opiate abuse

Firefighters in Weymouth are working to create a network of free addiction-support services for families to serve as a model for other communities across Massachusetts.

During the past three months, say firefighters in the town, they have saved 17 lives by successfully using a naloxone nasal spray, more commonly referred to by the brand name Narcan, to revive people suffering life-threatening effects from an opiate overdose.

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Now the firefighters want to do more for the community of fewer than 54,000 residents that has been hit hard by opiate addiction, whether to prescription painkillers or heroin, and its neighbors.

In 2010, 1,181 Weymouth residents were admitted to public substance abuse treatment programs, according to state Department of Public Health data. More than 40 percent of these residents identified heroin as their primary drug of use. Of these, more than 60 percent were between ages 21 and 39.

“We are seeing many addicts and their families suffer behind closed doors. We want to connect them with the support and services they need,” said Weymouth firefighter and paramedic Brad Flannery.

On June 20, the Weymouth Fire Department will find out whether a grant application it submitted on May 16 to the Blue Hills Community Health Alliance, an organization serving 13 communities south of Boston, was successful. The firefighters requested $6,800 toward a total of about $21,000 required for a new family addiction support team.

The department will spearhead the formation of a collaborative network that will include the local Health Department, South Bay Mental Health, Manet Community Health Center, and Learn to Cope, an addiction support group for families.

‘Now we have given 17 people an opportunity to make better choices. I tend to believe it is worth it if we save even one life.’

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In essence, the project creates a “support net” to help families and individuals cope with addiction. It is driven by referrals and outreach, and focuses on education, early intervention, treatment, and relapse prevention. It features a website and information line, according to the grant proposal.

It makes sense for local firefighters to develop preventive strategies that will do more than save the life of an overdose victim in crisis, said Weymouth Fire Captain Keith Stark, the department’s training officer.

“When little Johnny overdoses on opiates, Weymouth firefighters save him and he is taken to the hospital. When he gets out of the hospital, he goes home and shuts the door,” said Stark. “Johnny needs help to get off the opiates. What about Johnny’s parents? They need help to deal with Johnny. We are trying to bridge that gap.”

Or, as stated more formally in the grant application, the overdose victims saved in Weymouth since March have been treated by emergency medical services and later discharged from hospital beds “without a support net to help them or their loved ones cope with addiction.”

“Our job is to save lives. We want to create a model for other communities,” said Stark.

Hilary Jacobs, director of the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services at the Department of Public Health, said the state agency plans to collaborate more with first responders on a range of overdose prevention initiatives.

On March 1, the Weymouth Fire Department became the fifth organization in Massachusetts to join a state pilot program that distributes naloxone.

The Department of Public Health program trains officers or firefighters to use the nasal spray to revive an overdose victim. The four other participating organizations include the fire and police departments in Gloucester; the police department in Quincy; and the fire department in Revere. The program has not been embraced by more departments statewide because of space and cost issues as well as a lack of uniform agreement about whether Narcan is a necessary and appropriate tool for all.

In Weymouth, Flannery and fellow firefighter Glen Sargent brought the idea to their colleagues after they were inspired by the success of the Quincy Police Department.

“Quincy police have saved a significant amount of people in a short amount of time,” said Flannery.

In the fall of 2010, the Quincy Police Department was the first in Massachusetts to equip cruisers with Narcan. The Quincy program has since emerged as a nationwide model, earning Lieutenant Detective Patrick Glynn, head of the Quincy Police Department’s antidrug unit, a leadership award from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Quincy police have used Narcan to revive nearly 200 people to date.

Weymouth firefighters said they hope to do their part to both save lives in their community and influence the future course of addiction.

“Now we have given 17 people an opportunity to make better choices. I tend to believe it is worth it if we save even one life,” said Flannery. “We want to see the people we help make different decisions. We want to connect families with the resources they need to help them stop the addiction.”

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.
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