Group of New England fire chiefs push for 'boots on the ground' effort to address opioid epidemic

Group of New England fire chiefs push for 'boots on the ground' effort to address opioid epidemic

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For the past several years, firefighters across the Northeast have seen a growing number of calls for overdoses related to opioid abuse.

Now, members of the New England Division of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, led by several from Connecticut, are calling on elected officials to bring “boots to the ground” to end to the epidemic.

Members of the organization, including Old Mystic Fire Chief Kenneth Richards Jr. and North Farms Volunteer Fire Chief Timothy S. Wall of Wallingford released a statement Friday detailing a five-point call to action that the organization says is necessary to more directly address the growing problem of addiction in today’s society. The statement was unanimously approved by voting members of the New England Division of the International Association of Fire Chiefs at its annual conference in Portsmouth, N.H., earlier this week.

“Firefighters and first-responders are now seeing overdoses on a weekly, if not daily, basis,” said Richards, who serves as the first vice president for the division. “In just the time we were there, over two days, the chief of one smaller Vermont community reported six overdoses in his hometown alone. Opioid abuse is prevalent, and it’s a problem.”

For Richards, the latest call to action is part of a growing trend that started when he and other members of the Connecticut Fire Chiefs Association took a stand last August and issued a similar position statement that demanded an end to legislative talks and action by elected officials.

Both Richards and Wall, who serves as the chairman of the Volunteer and Combination Officers Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said they hope the latest statement will identify areas of need and bolster the state’s earlier statement.

In the national statement, members call directly for the implementation of more cohesive and outcome-driven negotiations between elected officials; lobbying to the United Nations and other international cooperatives for diplomatic initiatives and sanctions; providing better access to treatment and rehabilitation programs; pushing for more severe criminal penalties for suppliers; and supporting military action to better combat the supply of illegal drugs entering the country.

“We applaud legislators who write sensible laws which seek to regulate and provide oversight to drug companies and prescribers who, for too long, have overprescribed opioids to their patients. We support those providers who prescribe responsibly and find alternatives when treating their patients who are in pain,” the statement reads. “The facts, however, speak plainly: In 2017, there were 64,000 deaths in the United States caused by opioid overdose.”

Richards and Wall each noted that the figure represented considerable growth over similar statistics from even 2016, when an estimated 50,000 died. He said it also shows a growing need to make the issue — and the lack of action by elected officials — a much wider public discussion.

When asked why the organization was doing this, Wall said one word explains it all: epidemic. When you look at the numbers, it’s not hard to see why.

According to the Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the state saw a 10 percent increase in fatal overdoses from 2016 to 2017, while fentanyl-related overdoses rose nearly 40 percent. The state's chief medical examiner, James Gill, told legislators in February that accidental intoxication deaths rose from 917 in 2016 to 1,040 last year, and that overdose deaths linked to fentanyl also rose, up from 483 deaths in 2016 to 675 in 2017.

In neighboring Rhode Island, after six consecutive years of increases that led to an all-time high of 336 in 2016, there appeared to be a decline last year. Based on data available as of April 1, roughly 319 deaths were attributed to overdoses in the state, the second highest ever in a single year.

“We see it every day. Every day, the men and women of our fire departments and EMS are witnessing these overdoses firsthand,” Wall said. “It has a widespread effect, and no community is immune.”

Wall said he intends to bring it before the board of directors at its upcoming meeting. The group represents volunteer firefighters on a national level.

If approved, the section would then recommend the statement’s adoption before the full International Association of Fire Chiefs, which is headquartered in Virginia.

Both Wall and Richards said the end goal is to reach the national level and get all stakeholders involved in the discussion, and with the latest regional support, it appears the effort is quickly heading in that direction, they said.

“The message we want people to hear is this isn’t one town, one city or one state. This is a problem facing every community in the nation, and we want to move forward, working with elected officials, to make this a nationwide concern.”


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