With deaths from opiate prescription pills on the rise all over the country, a surprising new ally is stepping up to help reverse the trend – police. The Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Office, a small department in rural New York state, has emerged as a nationwide leader in the battle to save lives from unnecessary overdose deaths. Rensselaer County is one of a few departments in the country that trains police deputies in the use of Narcan, an opiate reversal drug that can be administered to revive a person who has overdosed on opiates.
“Rensselaer is a rural county,” explains Sheriff Jack Mahar, the man behind the push to train deputies on the use of Narcan. “We have volunteer ambulances out here and it’s difficult to get volunteers, so there are a lot of underserved areas. It can take 20 minutes for the paramedics to arrive, and that time is critical when it comes to overdoses.”
Sheriff Mahar has been a law enforcement officer for 36 years and a Sheriff for nine. During his tenure as Sheriff he noticed a sharp increase in the use and abuse of opiate prescriptions pills, as well as the delays for an ambulance to arrive for overdoses and other emergencies. He decided to do something about it.
“We mandated that all deputies become certified EMTs. We don’t transport people to the hospital, but our equipment is the same that an EMT would have and we provide that service to the community. I don’t believe the government should get involved in the private sector, but in this case because Rensselaer is a rural area and police usually arrive on the scene before the ambulance, we are able to step up to meet the need.”
Rensselaer County deputies received 24 credit hours of EMT training and must pass a proficiency exam each year. The training is paid for by the Sheriff’s department and then reimbursed by the New York State Public Health Office for every deputy who successfully becomes certified.
“The training costs are reimbursed by the state, but we pay for the EMT supplies out of our own budget,” says Sheriff Mahar. “New York is in the middle of a financial crisis just like everybody else, but the success of the program has more than compensated for the cost.” The Sheriff also receives grants and donations from the business community to pay for their EMT program.
Rensselaer County deputies began providing Basic Life Support (BLS) services three years ago to the community and have demonstrated remarkable success in being able to save lives before an ambulance is able to arrive. However, for many years under state law only Advanced Life Support (ALS) certified EMTs could administer the opiate reversal drug, Narcan. Sheriff Mahar, along with Dr. Michael Daly, medical director of the Rensselaer EMT program, worked hard to change this.
“Because there is a big problem with opiate pills in the areas, [deputies] were carrying Narcan for their dogs in case one of them accidentally ingested the drugs. We wanted to use Narcan on people too.”
The Rensslaer County Sheriff’s Office and Dr. Daly got together at the NY State Opiate Overdose Prevention Program to demonstrate that Narcan could be used safely at the BLS level by police deputies. In May 2012, they received the green light to begin administering Narcan to overdose victims.
If other Narcan programs around the country are any indication, the Rensselaer County Sheriff’s Office deputies are poised to become community heroes. With Narcan and EMT services, police can not only be instrumental in helping to reverse a deadly public health epidemic, but they can also be seen in a different role that just law enforcement.
“Our deputies are life savers,” says the Sheriff. “At first there was some grumbling because they said they signed up to be cops, not EMTs, but now they support the program because they are saving lives and they see the difference that makes.”