This post is eighth in a guest series from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, about the winners of its 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize.
A bad month for opioids in Manchester, N.H., meant 30 overdoses when Chris Hickey first started working as a paramedic in the city 15 years ago. These days, the emergency medical services officer says Manchester’s emergency responders see 60 to 70 suspected overdoses each month. More than a half dozen of those are fatal, which represents a nearly 12-fold increase in the city’s overdose deaths between 2003 and 2015.
The spike mirrors a national trend, with opioid prescription drugs, heroin and illegally manufactured fentanyl fueling a 137 percent increase in deaths from drug overdoses between 2000 and 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
“You have people of all backgrounds, of all ages who are all overdosing,” Hickey says. And those are just the emergency cases, he says. “We know that we have a large group of the population who are functioning addicts.”
How does one reach those who are addicted before they overdose? A small piece of the answer appeared to Hickey this spring when another firefighter’s stepbrother—homeless and struggling with heroin addiction—posted suicidal messages on Facebook and his family sent him to the fire department for help. It was the first time Hickey had encountered an addict who really wanted to take the first steps to get better. The two drove in Hickey’s pickup to Hope for New Hampshire Recovery, an organization that helps people overcome addiction. Three days later the man was in an inpatient treatment program, and Hickey was writing a proposal to Manchester’s mayor to turn fire stations into intake centers, where people could come without fear of being arrested.
Safe Station, as the initiative is called, launched in May 2016 in Manchester’s 10 fire stations. Within the first four months more than 420 people had sought help and been referred to treatment. Twelve people came in on Father’s Day, the program’s peak day. “They wanted to get better to be with their kids,” Mayor Ted Gatsas says.
Stephanie Bergeron, interim CEO of Serenity Place—a nonprofit treatment center in Manchester and a Safe Station partner—says all involved want to make the model as easy as possible for other communities to replicate. For her part, she would like to ramp up Serenity Place’s staffing on the weekends to accommodate Safe Station patients any time of the week.
“You want to catch people right at that moment when they’re ready to come in,” she says.