Boston firefighters work to extinguish opioid addiction


BOSTON >> Right now you'll see them hosing one another down for brief relief from the searing heat of summer, and then in a few months we'll see them shielded by icicles dangling from their helmets as they face the severities of winter.

They're firefighters and they're a rugged breed.

But there's another dimension of their service to this city that's intentionally sub rosa because sensitivity is essential to make it work.

They've given it the acronym FAITH, which is shorthand for Fighting Addiction In The Hub, and it's as noble an endeavor as entering an inferno.

Addictions used to be synonymous with Bud, or Smirnoff or Johnnie Walker Red, but now there's a new vocabulary of vicious evils known as opioids; they go by names like heroin, morphine, codeine, oxycodone, Oxycontin, Percocet, Vicodin, fentanyl and they are perilous, if not lethal.

Pat, 45, a father of three, knows all about them. A Boston firefighter for 15 years, he grew up in an alcoholic home in Hyde Park, "and that was a cycle I very much wanted to break."

By the grace of God, one day at a time, he celebrated 19 years of sobriety last month, and the power of his example led the city's 1,600 jakes to put him at the helm of their employee assistance program, giving him a bird's-eye view of a metastasizing menace known as opioids.

Because this city is now run by a mayor with a personal understanding of addictions, Boston firefighters have been equipped with Narcan, an opioid antidote that, when sprayed in the nose, enables an overdosed victim to awaken and breathe easier.

"When we get a medical call and find a person who has overdosed, maybe a father on the floor," Pat said, "our units give Narcan."

But that is at best a temporary fix, and firefighters would often find themselves returning again and again to the same addresses.

"All we were doing was Narcanning them and sending them to a hospital," Pat said. "The guys began asking if there was some way we could offer more, especially to the families."

With Mayor Marty Walsh's blessings, along with the approval of fire Commissioner Joe Finn and Local 718 president Richie Parish, FAITH was born beneath the radar screen of public scrutiny. They were looking for cures, not credit.

"We would wait a few days, then go to an address," Pat said. "And we'd say, 'We responded to a medical call here and we're just wondering if you're looking for support, maybe wondering where to turn?' I've seen mothers break down crying, saying, 'I can't believe someone's here to help my son.'

"We've even had instances where the addicted individual reached out for help while we were there and we literally took them from their kitchens and got them admitted to a detox facility that same night."

Because addiction is very much a family disease, devastatingly distressful to parents, spouses and children, anonymity is critical.

Boston's firefighters now plan to open specific stations around the city on Thursday evenings to help families cope with the disease. They've already done that in Southie, Dorchester and, two nights ago, Jamaica Plain, where a father brought his son to begin the healing process.

Police are now engaged in a similar outreach. So are EMTs.

So is the mayor's office, and so are other communities.

"We left one house with a kid who asked if we would bring him to a detox," Pat said. "It felt like we had pulled him out of a burning building. That's exactly what we did. It was a different kind of fire, that's all."


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