Narcan saves a life two days after Pittsfield Fire Department gets it

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PITTSFIELD >> Two days.

That's how long Engine 1 of the Pittsfield Fire Department had its original supply of naloxone.

The department on Tuesday began carrying the drug, purchased with the help of a state grant.

On Thursday, firefighters out of the West Housatonic Street station responded to a call for an unconscious patient who was suffering an opioid overdose. Crew members administered a dose of Narcan to revive the patient — the first-ever administered by the department.

"It shows that this problem does exist here in our community," said Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski. "We got our program up and running, [and] within two days, we saved somebody's life because of it."

Funding for the drug and training in administering it came from a first responder naloxone grant of $14,130 from the state Department of Public Health, Czerwinski said. Pittsfield was of 10 cities with high overdose rates eligible to apply for the grant, which requires monthly reporting to the DPH on all opioid-related overdoses.

Naloxone is a benign medication that reverses the effect of opioids, a crucial life-saving tool at a time when opioid abuse is at a crisis level.

Each of the department's engine companies now carry four doses of naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan. Emergency medical services protocol states that each victim can receive up to two doses of naloxone. The drug will be administered intranasally, he said.

All Pittsfield firefighters were trained internally by Pittsfield Fire Department captains Stanley Caesar and Neil Myers.

The Fire Department's multiple locations around the city enable engine companies to frequently reach overdosing patients before ambulance crews, which also carry naloxone, according to Czerwinski.

"By having this drug readily available to our personnel, we are getting ... Narcan into the patient two to three minutes (earlier)," he said.

In the midst of the opioid epidemic, it is common across the state for first responders to carry naloxone, said Jennifer Kimball, spokesperson for the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative. The North Adams, Egremont, New Marlborough and Williamstown fire departments also carry naloxone, she said.

Since 2000, opioid-related deaths in the state have increased by 350 percent, she said.

"We are definitely in a public health crisis right now," she said. "We think this is absolutely essential for the people of Pittsfield."

Naloxone is one piece in the larger puzzle of methods to help stem the opioid crisis, she said.

A common belief about naloxone holds that it leads addicts to continue using drugs, said Dr. Jennifer Michaels, medical director of the Brien Center for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services in Pittsfield.

Naloxone can provide a wake-up call that motivates some patients to seek treatment for their addictions, she said.

"If you don't stop someone's overdose, they're not going to live another day to seek treatment," Kimball said.

The drug also induces extremely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms in the overdosing patient, including vomiting, body aches, fever, chills and stomach pains, she said.

Massachusetts is experiencing a massive upsurge in heroin use — including heroin mixed with fentanyl — in response to greater regulation on opioid pills, Michaels said. Heroin is also the cheapest and most potent it has ever been, she said.

The Southern Berkshire Volunteer Ambulance Squad, which serves about 14,000, also keeps naloxone on hand.

The squad's three ambulances carry 10 milligrams of naloxone each, replenished as needed. Standard policy for the squad is to transport all overdose victims to the hospital, as naloxone only works for an hour or two, said Bill Hathaway, director of operations for the squad.

"A lot of times, they start using again as soon as we leave, because they want to get rid of that withdrawal symptom," he said.

Last year, the squad saw about 20 to 25 overdoses, about half of which required naloxone, he said. Some of these calls are to repeat overdoses.

"A lot of times, we know who we're responding to," he said.

In Pittsfield, Czerwinski said he hopes that those struggling with opioid abuse see the treatment options available to help end their addiction.

"We just hope that people realize that [help] exists, and living is a better choice than dying," Czerwinski said.


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