Western Pa. officials push for life-saving heroin overdose medicine
Mike Fendya wasn't looking for notoriety last month when he became the first Washington County police officer to use naloxone to revive a person from a heroin overdose.
The Carroll officer said he was passing through Monongahela on June 29 when he heard a radio dispatch for an unresponsive male. Fendya was in the house within seconds and administered the drug commonly sold as Narcan through a nasal applicator.
“He was on the floor, barely breathing, turning blue” said Fendya, a former paramedic. “I gave him the Narcan and within a minute he was already talking to me. It was no big deal to me. It's what we're there for.”
A dramatic increase in drug overdose fatalities and a change in state law has triggered efforts by local officials and health providers to put life-saving naloxone into the hands of municipal police officers and firefighters.'
Gov. Tom Wolf announced early this year that state troopers would carry it.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone have applied for grants through the state District Attorneys Association to purchase the drug. The Butler County Court Administrator's office is working on a similar program.
Pitcairn's police department was the first in Western Pennsylvania to equip officers with naloxone, partnering with the Allegheny Health Network and Forbes Regional Hospital.
“We have to change with the times and this is the future of policing,” Chief Scott Farally said, and officers saved one person who overdosed from heroin by administering the medicine.
Six South Hills police departments also are among suburban forces now armed with the medicine. A partnership of Medical Rescue Team South Authority, St. Clair Hospital and the departments recently put Narcan into the hands of 100 officers.
MRTSA, which provides emergency services to Whitehall, Mt. Lebanon, Green Tree, Castle Shannon, Dormont and Baldwin Township, received 43 overdose calls since January, including 19 for heroin, said Jesse Siefert, deputy chief of administration. MRTSA paramedics administered Narcan 11 times this year.
Richard Long, the DA association's executive director, said health insurers including Highmark and UPMC have pitched in a total of about $250,000 for distribution of the drug statewide. The association will reimburse counties for naloxone purchases, he said.
Vittone, the Washington County DA and a former paramedic, said he used $7,000 in money seized from drug dealers to purchase 100 two-dose kits for first responders. Zappala said he plans to follow suit.
“We've lost 208 people since 2011,” said Vittone, referencing the toll in his county.
He said Fendya was the first police officer in Washington County to use naloxone.
Robert W. McNeilly Jr., president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association and a retired Pittsburgh chief, said municipal officers should carry Narcan.
“I've been on calls before where we had to wait for the paramedics to show up to administer the Narcan and there's always the fear that someone will expire before the medics show up,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that heroin overdose fatalities nearly quadrupled in the United States from 2008 to 2013, when more than 8,200 people died.
Overdose deaths have ballooned by 200 percent in Allegheny County since 2000 and also increased in surrounding counties, according to the state health department and coroners' offices.
Drug overdoses kill more people in Pennsylvania than motor vehicle crashes, according to the state Health Department.
In 2012, 1,321 people died in crashes, compared to 2,026 fatal drug overdoses.
The state Legislature passed a law last year permitting police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians to carry naloxone.
The law indemnifies them from civil penalties for using it.
Paramedics have been administering naloxone for years, but advocates say police, particularly in rural areas, often arrive long before an ambulance.
“Invariably (police) are going to be the first ones on the scene when someone's in distress,” Zappala said. “I want every police department to train (to use it).”
But not every cop is buying into the program.
Sharpsburg Police Chief Leo Rudzki wouldn't rule out equipping his department with naloxone, but said he's not convinced it lessens the drug problem.
“It might save a life, but it's not going to solve the long-term issue of heroin abuse,” he said.
Canonsburg Mayor David Rohme, whose police department is equipped with naloxone, disagrees.
“If we save that person's life, hopefully we can get them the help they need to maybe change their life.”
Staff writer Stephanie Hacke contributed to this report. Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.