Fire chiefs from across the region made an urgent, at times personal, appeal to the nation’s drug czar Monday to support their fight against the opioid epidemic, calling for greater funding for addiction treatment and supplying firefighters with Narcan, a drug that reverses heroin overdoses.
In a morning round-table meeting, the chiefs told Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, that the scope of the crisis demanded immediate action. Some described firsthand accounts of reviving overdose victims with Narcan, and growing efforts to steer addicts toward treatment.
“It’s an epidemic that has no boundaries,” said Keith Stark, fire chief in Weymouth, at Boston Fire Department headquarters. Ten people have died from opioid overdoses this year in Weymouth, and firefighters there have saved well over 100 people from overdoses since they began carrying Narcan two years ago, part of a growing number of departments that now use the powerful drug.
With the help of community groups, firefighters in some towns are providing information about treatment to those battling addiction in hopes of persuading them to seek counseling.
“People need help beyond just giving them Narcan,” Stark said. “It’s a cycle.”
More than 1,000 people in Massachusetts died from overdoses of heroin and other opioids last year, a 33 percent increase from 2012. Nationally, fatal overdoses, especially from nonmedical use of prescription drugs, has surged over the past decade, and has surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of injury deaths.
Botticelli said the epidemic required action on several fronts, from expanded treatment options to reducing the vast supply of pain medication, both on the street and in people’s homes. “It requires a comprehensive approach,” he said.
US Senator Ed Markey said approximately 120 Americans die from drug overdoses every day, and called for increased funding for drug treatment programs.
“Treatment works,” he said. “Recovery is possible.”
Markey said the epidemic was “out of control,” and said the medical use of painkillers was too widespread. About four out of five new heroin users had previously abused prescription painkillers, studies have shown.
“We need to stop the overprescribing of pain medication,” he said.
US Representative Stephen Lynch noted that firefighters are increasingly on the front lines of the epidemic, and that their medical efforts needed to be tied into a broader response to drug addiction that involved hospitals, health clinics, and treatment facilities.
“We’re all grappling with this problem,” he said.
US Representative Katherine Clark said she supported outreach efforts for people battling opioid abuse to connect them to help “before it’s too late.”
“It is cutting across our communities,” she said. “We’re losing a generation of young people.”
Clark recently filed legislation to help hospitals treat newborns suffering from opiate exposure. From 2000 to 2012, the number of infants suffering from withdrawal grew nearly fivefold, a new study has found.
In Revere, firefighters have launched a new outreach program aimed at reducing overdoses by returning to the homes of overdose victims to speak with them about treatment options. The department is collaborating with Kim Hanton, director of addiction services at North Suffolk Mental Health Association.
“Some people aren’t ready for treatment,” Hanton said. “You’re really there to engage.”
The families of those struggling with substance abuse are often looking for help and guidance, she said.
Between early February and April, Revere firefighters used Narcan 136 times to reverse overdoses, a dramatic increase.
In Boston, firefighters have used the drug more than 300 times in less than a year, officials said. A dose costs about $40.
The department will monitor the outreach program in Revere to see if Boston could launch a similar effort, a spokesman said.
Gene Doherty, the fire chief in Revere, said firefighters are increasingly taking on medical and public health responsibilities, particularly as opioid overdoses have become more common. “Fire service evolves,” he said. “We are the people on the front lines.”
Doherty said some children begin dabbling in prescription drugs in middle school before moving on to heroin.
“It’s cheap and it’s plentiful,” he said.
Mayor Dan Rizzo of Revere said 15 people had died of drug overdoses this year, already surpassing last year’s total.
“Clearly, we need a renewed focus,” he said. “The problem is not getting better; it’s getting worse.”