Making a Life-Saving Trip to One of Six Safe Stations

December 16, 2016


by David S. Morin

Recently two residents from Londonderry got lost in Hudson.  This trip wasn’t a family outing or a shopping trip; it was to change a life.  The mother and daughter became lost in the area of Library Park on their way to a Nashua Safe Fire Station.  The daughter has an opioid addiction, and they were seeking help to take the first step to a recovery program.

As they came to Library Park unsure what direction to go, they dialed the Nashua Fire Department and gave their location as this: “at the triangle park where the soldiers are standing.”  Nashua Fire Dispatchers knew their location and directed them across the bridge and to the East Hollis Street Fire Station, about a mile away.

When they arrived at the fire station, firefighters quickly evaluated the teenager, made the needed contacts and, within 15 minutes time, transported her to a care facility to recover and begin a new life.

When an addict comes to a safe station it is a telling moment in his or her life.  They have reached their lowest point as the addiction has taken control and has left them no other choice.  Most arrive with a family member or friend and are scared at what their future will bring.  Firefighters say these people are looking to get out of the grip of the drug and make a change in their lives.

The overdose death of a 24-year-old woman at the Nashua bus station accelerated the development of the program in Nashua.  Mayor Jim Donchess is credited with bringing representatives from the Nashua fire, police, Harbor Homes, Keystone Hall and hospitals together to formulate a plan to handle the opioid problem in the area.

Nashua Fire Chief Steve Galipeau explained that “the Nashua Safe Station Program started on Nov. 14, and has assisted 28 patients ranging in the ages of 19 to 54, two of those being from Hudson.”  In 2016 Hudson firefighters have responded to 52 overdoses; seven have proven fatal.  In the last month Nashua has seen 30 overdoses.  Addicts seeking help have traveled to Nashua from the city, as well as from Salem, Londonderry, Rindge, N.H., as well as Lowell and Haverhill, Mass., to use the program.  To date, the Safe Program hot line has received 31 calls from people requesting information or seeking help.

Regional Director Chris Stawasz of American Medical Response said that “a scope of practice change along with an alterative care waiver had to be requested from the State of New Hampshire to allow patients to be transported to a non-medical facility before the program went online.”

The Nashua program is far reaching to ensure those in need of service get prompt assistance and the correct program to meet their needs.  If treatment is not available locally, an agreement has been reached with agencies throughout the state to accept individuals for treatment.

While Nashua has just started, the concept is not new; the City of Manchester began a similar program back in May.  The Manchester program came about after a Manchester firefighter had a relative that was an addict and requested assistance from the department’s EMS director.  Due to contacts the EMS director had the relative taken through the process and then to a nearby recovery center for treatment.  The idea was then sent to city leaders and was approved.

“The Nashua program followed the Manchester outline, but it was adjusted to meet the needs and services of the greater Nashua area,” explained Nashua Fire Chief Galipeau.  “The Safe Station is designed as a walk-in service where anyone seeking treatment or recovery from addiction to opioids or other substances is encouraged to visit a city fire station at any time for help.  Trained firefighters and American Medical Response medics at the station will conduct a basic medical evaluation and contact representatives from Harbor Homes who will immediately respond to each report.”

The medical exam encompasses a general medical examination, if the addict has used a drug within two hours of coming to the Safe Station, if there is any acute medical condition, even a slightly high temperature of 100.5 will require a trip to a hospital.  Out of the 28 who have sought help at a safe station, only two have been transported to the hospital for treatment.  Ninety percent of addicts have some type of underlying mental health issue that goes along with the addiction.

Once the medical evaluation is completed and it is determined that no acute medical care is needed the person seeking help will be transported by Harbor Homes, to the Maple Street Safe Center or to the Harbor Homes complex.  At these facilities the individuals will be cared for while an opening in a recovery program is found.

Each of the six Nashua fire stations is designated as a safe station.  They are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help anyone who would like to take the step to changing their lives.  On average an individual who seeks help at a fire station is transported to a facility in just under 12 minutes after they arrive.

The program places no further burden on the taxpayer as the first responders assisting these individuals do so while performing their normal duty shifts.  When a person enters a safe station a single fire company and ambulance are placed out of service.  The impact of the fire department responses to other emergencies is minimal.  At any one time the City of Nashua has 38 firefighters on duty, staffing 10 pieces of fire apparatus out of six fire stations.  American Medical Response, who provides EMS and ambulance service for Nashua, operates four ambulances with eight paramedics within the city.

On Thanksgiving Day a person seeking help arrived at the East Hollis Street Station and the fire company was handling an emergency elsewhere in the city.  Each station has a sign posted with a phone number to call if the firefighters are out of the station.  In the Thanksgiving Day case dispatchers advised the individual to remain at the station and a second fire company from a nearby station was dispatched to assist.

If a large emergency were to take place in Nashua, and the city’s fire companies were tied up at the scene, individuals can still come to a station for assistance.  A mutual aid fire company from another town covers the Nashua’s firehouses during that type of large emergency.  All of the area towns’ firefighters are trained as emergency medical providers and will begin the medical evaluation.  A member of Nashua Fire will activate the Safe Station Program.

Chief Galipeau went on to say that “the program encompasses all the area towns (and) there is no restrictions as to where you are from as it is easier for Nashua with its recourses to handle than it would be for such towns as Hudson.  Most of the surrounding towns have a limited manpower pool and apparatus, and one or two calls can use up all the available manpower resources overtaxing the smaller communities.”

As the program is in its infancy, there is little data to date to show the impact of the program over the long team as treatment is just that: long term.  It is known that some will fall off the program.  Each individual will be tracked as he or she proceeds through the system to see what is working and if changes are needed.

Remember the mother and her daughter in front of the soldiers at Library Park who were lost?  What would happen if they went straight down Library Street and saw the Leonard Smith Fire Station and stopped there.  Hudson Chief Robert Buxton explained that “first while Hudson at this time does not have a safe station program, no one stopping would not ever hear the word no.  All of Hudson firefighters are EMTs and there are paramedics at every station so if there was something acute happening with the daughter, they would start treatment and transport her to a hospital.  Without an integrated protocol agreement with the treatment facility such as Nashua has with Harbor Homes and Keystone a patient would be transferred to a local hospital but would not be entered into a recovery program.”  Current state law only allows ambulances to take people to licensed hospitals who have emergency rooms, without special agreement and state waivers.  Chief Buxton has been in conversations with Chief Galipeau in Nashua to see how the departments can work together.  Conversation also has taken place within the Hudson department on how to address both the needs of the safe station addicts that would come to a station and to ensure proper coverage remains for the town.

According to Stawasz of American Medical Response, the recent police efforts from “Operation Granite Hammer” with raids on drug dealers and resulting arrests “have made it hard to get drugs into the Nashua area.”  The number of overdoses appears to have decreased.  “Three key steps will be needed to end the opioid problem in the area; they are prevention, treatment and law enforcement,” said Stawasz.

The Hudson~Litchfield News will continue to follow the discussions and progress Hudson makes to help these people in crisis.  Next week will bring you the insight and feelings of the firefighters, EMTs and paramedics who have been the first to treat the people battling addiction.

To contact the Nashua Safe Station Program call (603) 594-3636.

The Nashua Safe Stations are located at these six fire stations:

15 Amherst St., Engine Company 1

177 Lake St., Engine Company 2

124 Spit Brook Rd., Engine Company 3

70 East Hollis St., Engine Company 4

101 Pine Hill Rd., Engine Company 5

2 Conant Rd., Engine Company 6