BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - One person died every 45 hours in Jefferson County, on average, from an opioid overdose over a five-year period.
From 2014 to 2018, 972 people died after overdosing on an illicit or prescription opioid, according to data from The Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner’s Office.
The rate peaked in 2014 when 215 people died from an opioid overdose. Hundreds more died statewide, according to the CDC.
In 2015, state lawmakers expanded access to Naloxone, also known as Narcan, allowing law enforcement officers and others, to carry and administer the opioid reversal agent.
At the time, Ivey called opioid addiction a “major problem in Alabama” and formed a task force to find ways to combat the crisis. Since, state leaders have explored the complex scope of the opioid crisis and established a response that includes prevention, treatment, intervention and community response.
One of the strategies developed to have immediate impact on the crisis, was to prioritize access to Narcan to law enforcement, especially those in areas where they’re likely the first responder to an overdose.
WBRC FOX6 On Your Side Investigators found a majority of the law enforcement agencies in Jefferson County carry Narcan and most began doing so in 2018, including the Jefferson County Sherriff’s Office.
Most agencies in Jefferson County use Narcan
“A lot of times, basically, depending on where we are at, we show up before [EMS does] and that puts us in a position to either respond or just stand there with our hands in our pockets waiting the paramedics to get there,” said Sergeant Rusty Starnes, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
"Now we don't have to wait with our hands in our pockets."
Starnes said responding to overdose calls before Narcan felt helpless.
"It's given a huge peace of mind to give us to be able to carry this on the road and to have it as another tool."
There are 25 police departments in Jefferson County. Thirteen - Adamsville, Argo, Bessemer, Brookside, Gardendale, Homewood, Hoover, Hueytown, Irondale, Mountain Brook, Trussville, Vestavia Hills and Warrior - carry Narcan. Pleasant Garden Police carry it, but only for officers’ use. Eight - Birmingham, Brighton, Fairfield, Fultondale, Leeds, Midfield, Morris, Tarrant - do not carry Narcan. Kimberly, Lipscomb and Trafford Police Departments did not respond to questions about whether they used Narcan.
Birmingham Police and Fire are dispatched to calls from the same center, and police spokesman, Sergeant Johnny Williams, told WBRC FOX6 officers and paramedics arrive to calls around the same time. BPD does not use Narcan because, according to Williams, its system works.
In an email, Williams wrote, “We are not refusing it. It’s not about the availability or cost, it’s about our response time. It’s not necessary.”
According to the Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner’s Office, 87 of the 114 deadly drug overdoses in Birmingham in 2018 were caused by opioids.
WBRC FOX6 On Your Side Investigators has requested the reports from all overdose calls Birmingham Police and Fire responded to in March 2018, the deadliest month for overdoses, but has not yet received those records.
“I would say there is no doubt Narcan saves lives, and when we are talking about overdoses, minutes can mean the difference between life and death,” said State Representative Neil Rafferty, District 54.
Rafferty saw how Birmingham’s system works while on a ride-along with a police officer in October.
“It was in a business, and the business owner called and said there was somebody in their bothering customers,” explained Rafferty. “When we showed up on scene, the guy was nodding off and had some symptoms that I would say looked like an opioid overdose.”
The initial call wasn’t medical, so EMS was not sent to the scene with the officer and Rafferty.
“The interesting part is that I had just received this training on Narcan at my work a couple weeks before this had happened, so when we walked in on the scene, I was quiet and staying out of the way,” said Rafferty. “And then you could see that [the man’s] fingers were turning blue and there was other kind of indicators that it might be an opioid overdose. He was definitely kind of somnolent. Not passed out, not totally unresponsive, but definitely somnolent.”
As the officer worked to get the man’s name and to ask him what happened, Rafferty said he watched as the man became less responsive.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I think he might be going through an opioid overdose,’ and [the officer] said, ‘OK, get the business owner to call 911,’” remembered Rafferty.
Paramedics arrived, “pretty quick,” and gave the man Narcan, said Rafferty.
“Narcan works like that,” said Rafferty as he snapped his fingers. “I mean it puts people immediately into withdrawal, their life is saved, they might feel like they want to die, but at least they are not going to anymore, and the guy said he was using fentanyl, so it was a pretty close.”
Narcan part of the statewide solution
Members of The Alabama Opioid Overdose and Addition Council met in early November to update progress made on their strategic plan to combat the opioid crisis.
The council is divided into seven sub-committees: Data, prescribers/dispensers, rescue (Naloxone), treatment/recovery, prevention/education, law enforcement and community engagement.
One goal of the rescue sub-committee is to “prioritize access of naloxone to law enforcement personnel in areas where they are most likely to be first responders for overdose.”
To help accomplish this goal, Attorney General Steve Marshall and Health Officer Scott Harris sent a memo to all law enforcement agencies in the state about the 2015 law that grants immunity from liability to those who give Narcan in a suspected overdose, and information on the opioid reversal agent.
A sub-committee member also shared information about Narcan and where officers can get it at the Alabama Sheriffs Association and the Alabama Chiefs of Police Association meetings.
The Alabama Department of Mental Health (ADMH) also contacted law enforcement agencies across the state with information on how to get free Narcan through its grant program.
“I think we have made great progress in the law enforcement community about our direct engagement in the use of naloxone and being able to restore lives,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall.
He added, “I think we have done a good job to make it available, to be able to train not only at our national meetings and our state meetings, but also to go directly to departments to give them the information they need to make that decision.”
Marshall was unaware Birmingham Police were not carrying Narcan. When told, he said, “That is something I would follow up with law enforcement leadership there.”
Recognizing Birmingham Fire carries Narcan, he added, “It may be that’s a strategic decision that cities have made, but again, it is something that we would encourage law enforcement to strongly consider to help save lives.”
Using the tool
Of the 13 police departments in Jefferson County carrying Narcan, nine have gotten it through the ADMH grant. Statewide, 145 law enforcement agencies have taken advantage of the grant.
Jefferson County Sheriff deputies were trained in the summer of 2018 and by October, every officer had Narcan.
“The Narcan puts us in a position to instead of giving a death notification, we are actually able to potentially be counseling with that person and try to point them in the right direction,” said Starnes.
He added, “I can’t imagine us going back to not having this as a tool.”