As heroin overdoses rise, Hamilton County police officers change way they save lives

CINCINNATI — Even though the Tri-State’s heroin epidemic seems to be getting worse, more people who overdose are getting a second chance.

That’s because the first responders called to the scene are getting better at saving lives, experts said.

“Before, you were responding to a heroin overdose and maybe thinking it was just a medical issue that the fire department or squad would take care of," said Newtown Police Chief Tom Synan, who chairs the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition. "Now, officers are being real proactive on issuing that first aid.”

It’s a shift from when it used to take several minutes for police officers to recognize and treat an opiate overdose. Now, overdoses are so common that even 911 dispatchers are calling out the signs, sometimes before first responders get to the scene.

At least 133 people died in Hamilton County from heroin-related incidents in 2015, according to the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office. That number is expected to grow as more toxicology reports roll in, experts said. In 2014, 177 people died in the county from heroin-related incidents.

People who have overdosed are flooding hospitals, too. In 2014, 779 people visited Hamilton County hospitals for heroin poisoning, according to the Hamilton County Public Health Department. That’s compared to 2013, when 535 were admitted and 2010, when 344 people visited hospitals for heroin poisoning. Hospital admission figures for 2015 are not yet available.

“Officers unfortunately have a lot more experience now," Synan said. "I think we are better prepared when we get on the scene. There’s also probably a shift in how we approach the scene." 

Hamilton County Officers Now Carry Life-Saving Drug

Since November, more Hamilton County officers have been approaching overdose scenes with Naloxone. The antidote, also known as Narcan, can reverse an opiate overdose and has a track record of saving lives — like Wesley Lander, who overdosed in his child’s hospital room at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center earlier this month.

RELATED: Here’s how to use Narcan to reverse a heroin overdose

Hamilton County Commissioners set aside $150,000 in 2015, and have provided more than 3,330 doses of Narcan to 14 law enforcement agencies in the county, including the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, the Mount Healthy Police Department, the Blue Ash Police Department, the Newtown Police Department and the Cincinnati Police Department.

In addition, the Hamilton County Public Health Department distributed 1,000 doses of the drug to 28 fire departments in the county, using almost $29,000 allocated from the state. 

Local firefighters and paramedics have had access to the drug for years. In 2014, the Cincinnati Fire Department used 1,880 doses, said department spokeswoman Catherine Ritter.

But the drug is new for most Hamilton County police officers. Officers used the antidote 95 times from June 1, 2015 to Jan. 7, 2016, Synan said.

In Mount Healthy, one of the department's officers had to use Narcan the same day it was issued to police. Just three hours after Officer Timothy Baird started to carry the antidote on Nov. 19, he likely saved Jason Harrison’s life.

Harrison overdosed while driving on Ronald Reagan Highway, Baird said. The officer worked with North College Hill officers to pull him out of the car and onto the median.

“We had just gotten (Narcan training). I was looking for all of the clues,” Baird said. “The raspy breath, a real deep gurgle. You’re blue in the face. He was unconscious. He wasn’t responding. He was gasping for air.”

Baird sprayed the syringe in Harrison’s nostrils. He started breathing minutes later.

“It was surprising," Baird said. "I definitely wasn’t expecting to get it and use it right away." 

Law Enforcement Opinions Change

While more than a dozen Hamilton County law enforcement agencies are using Narcan, there are dozens more that haven’t equipped their officers with the drug.

Synan said some communities and their police departments are so small that they leave it up to the local fire departments to do the job.

“The thought wasn’t, ‘I don’t want Narcan because I don’t agree with it,’" Synan said. "it was, 'I got these fire guys who will probably beat us there.'” 

But for other police department leaders, Narcan is still too nerve-racking to adopt. Even some agencies that carry the drug now were hesitant to jump on board in the beginning. 

"When we first talked about equipping officers with Narcan, there was a little bit of controversy because, were police officers going to be liable if things didn’t work out? If the person didn’t make it?" Synan said.

The answer to that is no, thanks to a state bill signed into law in 2014. House Bill 170 allows police officers, family members and friends of an opiate user to administer Narcan without being legally accountable for any harm that comes from it.

Synan said he believes Narcan is working, and it’s just one step in tackling the drug epidemic.

"What we’ve been saying is, 'Let’s save their lives first. Let’s make sure they stop dying and then we can work together to find solutions to end addiction,'" he said. 

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