N.H. Fire Department May Become Opioid Safe Station
Jan. 12—PORTSMOUTH—City Councilor Josh Denton proposes creating a city "safe station" for people who are struggling with addiction and need immediate help.
"Any addict seeking treatment or help at any moment could walk into a fire station and get help," Denton said about the safe station model, which has been implemented in Nashua and Manchester.
They could get that help without fear of being arrested under the safe station model, Denton said. His proposed motion asks for city staff to "begin exploring and report back on the potential need, associated costs and steps required" to create a safe station in Portsmouth.
Though the number of overdoses in the city has dropped the past two years, Denton said the opioid crisis still remains a serious problem throughout the state. A safe station in Portsmouth would help the city do more to proactively address the issue, he said.
"The Fire Department is currently using Narcan, which I think is great, but safe stations allow us to be more proactive and potentially help before an overdose occurs," Denton said. "The idea is based on what else can the council and elected officials do to address the opioid crisis."
Denton plans to make his motion at Tuesday's City Council meeting. Denton stressed he is initially only asking for a report back from city staff because establishing a safe station at a Portsmouth fire station "would be a huge endeavor."
"It could mean two additional firefighters would have to be on duty, along with potentially having another ambulance available," Denton said.
After city staff reports back on the idea, the council can then have "another long public conversation on if this is how we want to be investing our resources," Denton said.
"Is it a good fit for Portsmouth? It might not be," he said. "Portsmouth could be too small a city."
Fire Chief Steven Achilles said Denton reached out to him about the idea recently. Achilles, too, noted that drug overdoses have dropped from a high of around 50 in 2015 and 2016 to around 30 in the last two years. He stressed "it is still a public health concern."
For example, there were 21 heroin overdoses in 2017 and 14 involving other illicit drugs for a total of 35, Achilles said.
In 2015, there were 46 drug overdoses in total, but they were not broken down at that time by heroin and other drugs, he said.
Those numbers refer to overdoses, not overdose deaths, he said. The Fire Department, like many first responding agencies, frequently uses Narcan to revive people from an overdose.
The chief commended Denton for coming up with the idea, but said because Portsmouth is a smaller city it might be "challenging for us to implement this."
Because Nashua and Manchester have more fire stations, it's easier for them to designate a team specifically to address drug-related issues, Achilles said. Right now, for example, there is often nobody at a station because firefighters are out responding to calls.
"If another call comes in, there's not a lot of reserve capacity," Achilles said.
Manchester and Nashua, where there are larger populations, have "more robust social services and treatment services" than Portsmouth, the chief said.
"They also have a separate ambulance that's not part of the fire service," Achilles said.
He worries that if Portsmouth established a safe station and someone arrived for help "in the middle of the night, but they didn't need to go to the hospital, where would they go?"
"We don't want someone to show up here and not have resources to help them," Achilles said.
Plus, he said, anyone can already show up at any of the city's three fire stations and get medical help.
"We also work with the hospital for people who may have drug addiction issues to try to get them lined up for help," Achilles said, adding people can already get help at a fire station without having to worry about being arrested. "We do want the public to know if you need any assistance, you're more than welcome to come."
He is already prepared to look at what models Portsmouth and other smaller cities could use to deal with opioid addiction.
"It might not be called a safe station, but I believe we'll have some model that works," Achilles said.