Recent incidents involving first-responders coming into contact with dangerous drugs have prompted some Mahoning Valley police departments and emergency medical service providers to reconsider their policies.
On its website, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends anyone handling substances such as fentanyl take extreme precautions beyond gloves that most first- responders use.
“While handling and processing fentanyl and its analogs, first-responders such as law-enforcement personnel, emergency medical services [EMS] and firefighters should wear a ... half-mask filtering face-piece respirator,” warns the CDC.
All the responding agencies The Vindicator interviewed use gloves, but the use of masks and respirators is inconsistent.
Issues have been raised after an officer in East Liverpool became ill last week and had to be revived with several doses of the opioid antidote Narcan after contact with some powder from a traffic stop.
Months ago, a Boardman officer was administered an opioid-reversal medication after a substance he was inspecting blew into his face.
Youngstown police Chief Robin Lees said his officers have access to gloves and masks in their patrol cars if they run across drugs they think may be harmful. A lot of officers, however, do not wear the masks now because they can be cumbersome on the road, he said.
City police interactions with overdose cases is a daily occurrence, and Lees said he expected some officers to be more cautious after what happened in East Liverpool.
On Wednesday, three officers on the South Side and two ambulances from American Medical Response were sent to an overdose call just after 1 p.m. in the 100 block of West Chalmers Avenue. Two men were found in the throes of an overdose.
Paramedics administered doses of Narcan to both men, including four doses to a man who was slumped outside by a side door. The paramedics, who were working in close proximity to both men, were wearing gloves as was one of the officers. Both men were taken to St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital to be treated.
Officers with the Warren Police Department do not use masks when they respond to drug calls, police Chief Eric Merkel said.
The naloxone kits they use have two doses and a face shield to use for resuscitation, but not a mask to protect officers.
Merkel did issue an advisory to officers last August advising them to no longer field test drugs because of the danger of certain drugs harming an officer by being absorbed through the skin. Warren officers are also advised to wear a pair of gloves when handling drugs for the same reason.
Overdose cases are happening in the suburbs, too.
Canfield police Chief Chuck Colucci said his officers always have rubber gloves with them and use them when handling suspected drugs. They also keep masks in patrol cars.
“The mask would only come out if they suspected something along those lines [like fentanyl] that might be harmful, but we always use the gloves,” Colucci said.
Much of the protocol for dealing with drug arrests comes from previous training for encountering mobile methamphetamine labs. An officer in Campbell suffered burns to his esophagus in 2013 and had to be hospitalized after finding a mobile meth lab during a traffic stop.
“The risks and dangers have always been there,” Colucci said. “The fentanyl is new, but the danger that comes along with [drugs] isn’t new.”
Boardman fire Chief Mark Pitzer said his department is considering a stricter mask policy. Currently, fire department responders wear gloves, and masks are available.
Pitzer said department members typically are not in direct contact with items such as drug paraphernalia. He said, however, the possibility of airborne exposure has prompted officials to look at safety measures.
Poland Township police Chief Brian Goodin said his officers carry gloves in their cruisers and the department has face coverings on hand.
Goodin said if his officers were to encounter hazardous substances, a specialized team likely would be called in.
Ambulance crews with AMR have access to gloves, booties to cover their feet, disposable gowns, and pocket respirators (which is secured over the nose and mouth and filters the air), and face shields to cover the eyes, said administrative supervisor David Skujins.
Skujins said crews are trained to assess a scene as they pull up.
“If there’s a potential for them to get contaminated, if there’s a heroin needle next to them, they’re just [cautious],” he said. “If there are bags and powder, they’re going to immediately back out and get gowned up.”
Skujins said AMR is doing additional training with employees on this topic.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Cleveland, on Wednesday sent a letter to the Department of Justice urging the agency to expedite the distribution of federal funds to police departments. His letter details the East Liverpool incident, saying it “serves as a stark reminder of the very real threat law enforcement officers face in dealing with the current opioid crisis.”
The funding to which he referred is for the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Grant Program, which will provide funding to police departments to train first-responders for opioid-related incidents.
Contributors: Staff reporters Joe Gorman, Jordyn Grzelewski, Ed Runyan and Justin Wier.