Sheriff says education may be a way to avoid future deputy drug exposures
By Ed Runyan
A protective suit, nitrile gloves and dust mask are solutions for keeping law-enforcement officers safe when confronted with deadly opiates such as fentanyl or carfentanil.
But the type of threat three deputies faced Jan. 18 when an overdosed man purposely kicked opiates into the air near them may be best battled with education, Trumbull County Sheriff Paul Monroe said.
“In general, we’re looking at the best way to safeguard the deputies ... and a lot of it is education,” the sheriff said.
Three deputies had gone to the Blue Manor mobile home park in Newton Township for a drug overdose call. While ambulance personnel tried to revive Martin Higinbotham, 47, of California with the opiate-reversal drug naloxone, two deputies gathered suspected heroin and fentanyl as evidence from a table not far from Higinbotham.
One of the deputies reported wearing nitrile gloves while handling the drugs but didn’t mention any other protection.
When Higinbotham awoke, he kicked the table with both feet, producing a cloud of drugs into the air near the deputies.
The deputies escorted Higinbotham to an ambulance, but two of them said they were not “feeling right.” They apparently did not fall unconscious or have an overdose but went to the hospital as a precaution, officials said.
Monroe said his department is reviewing the incident to make sure deputies are as prepared as possible the next time something like this happens.
Higinbotham’s preliminary hearing Tuesday in Newton Falls Municipal Court was reset to 10:30 a.m. Feb. 13. He was released from the county jail on $25,000 bond Jan. 24.
But the answer won’t be as simple as buying protective suits, Monroe said.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration last June issued a 20-page “briefing guide” that discussed training and equipment law enforcement could obtain to help recognize dangerous situations and avoid being exposed.
For example, it suggests that first responders who encounter fentanyl or fentanyl-related substances “not take samples or otherwise disturb any powdered substances without employing proper” personal protective equipment, such as nitrile gloves, safety glasses, a dust mask, disposable paper suit or coveralls and shoe covers.
It also suggests contacting “the appropriate officials within their agency who have been trained to handle hazardous materials,” instead of trying to handle fentanyl-related opioids themselves. More sophisticated chemical-resistant suits and a breathing apparatus should also be used at times, the document says.
The guide notes that inhalation of fentanyl-related substances is one way a first responder could be exposed to the effects of the drug.
“Due to the high potency of fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances, exposure to small quantities can cause serious negative health effects, respiratory depression and even death,” the guide says.
When asked about the guide, Monroe said: “You can’t just say there’s a blueprint for every situation.”
At the Blue Manor, deputies “went to deal with a life or death” situation and had a table “kicked into them that has this powdery substance on it.” He said it’s difficult to be prepared for that.
“It wasn’t their intention to be exposed in a million years, but it happened,” Monroe said. “You are dealing now with three deputies who are now victims. They’re crime victims,” the sheriff said.
“I wish I could say there will be a new policy, and we’ll do it this way. Are we looking at our policies? We look at our policies every day. Are there going to be some changes forthcoming? Absolutely.
“In the situation these deputies were in, I don’t know that we can armchair-[quarterback] the decisions they made, that their decisions probably saved the life of the person who assaulted them. That’s a case by case decision. Will these deputies be more cautions next time? Yes, they will.”