By Mark Powell
Firefighters to the Rescue
It started with simple math. In 2016, the Columbus Division of Fire medics responded to 2,400 suspected drug overdoses. That was more than twice as many as 2015.
“We didn’t realize how bad the situation was until we started using Emergency Medical Services (EMS) data to get an overview of what was happening in the city,” recalls Lieutenant Matthew Parrish. “We live in a world where data is king, but using it beyond billing purposes was new to EMS. The growing naloxone administration numbers sounded the alarm. When we finished reviewing the data we realized, ‘Wow, we have a huge problem’.”
Even worse, those who were overdosing weren’t staying in the hospital once EMS took them there. “Medics would drop them off and put them in a hospital bed. But before the medics could finish the paperwork, the person had walked out of the door,” Parrish says.
It was a worsening cycle. Clearly, a new approach was needed—fast.
So in early 2017 RREACT (Rapid Response Emergency Action Crisis Team) was created. The fire department took the lead and reached out to external stakeholders at local hospital systems and 21 agencies that serve Columbus.
A paramedic and social worker with a background in addiction respond to overdose cases at local hospitals and engage individuals before they can flee. People are transported to treatment when needed. An outreach team follows up with those who refuse help.
Starting in early 2018, a specially-trained police officer was added to the team to better locate people and to make contact with the family when necessary. A social worker specializing in children and family issues addresses the needs of kids and secondary trauma situations.
In 2018, approximately 3,000 people overdosed in Columbus. Thanks to RREACT’s efforts, over 1,000 of them were connected to treatment. But its mission is far from over.
“We’re always looking to add more components to our outreach team,” Parrish says. “Public safety providers are conditioned to solve problems in ten minutes or less. RREACT is working to improve our impact as well. The first thing we do is establish trust. We also look at the needs of the family.”
While the program is still relatively new, it’s already producing life-changing results. Parrish recalls the case of David. “He was someone whom we had multiple encounters with. We kept in touch and we texted back and forth and waited for him to be ready for treatment. He finally agreed and eventually completed it. David has been in recovery for a year and is gainfully employed now.
We still communicate with him and have helped his family as well.” David is one of what RREACT hopes will eventually be thousands of success stories.
RREACT was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.