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In fight against heroin, more Fargo responders to get antidote drug

FARGO - Joe Schiele is a big fan of the heroin antidote drug Narcan because of the number of lives it has saved. It's important to him, he told The Forum, because, like many families, his has been touched by the heroin epidemic. A brother sufferi...

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The Fargo/Moorhead Good Neighbor Project distributes kits of Naloxone, the generic form of opiate overdose antidote Narcan, with two clean needles and alcohol swabs. Rick Abbott / The Forum
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FARGO – Joe Schiele is a big fan of the heroin antidote drug Narcan because of the number of lives it has saved.

It's important to him, he told The Forum, because, like many families, his has been touched by the heroin epidemic. A brother suffering from chronic pain got hooked on prescription opioids and eventually turned to heroin.

It bothered him that Fargo police officers and firefighters aren't equipped with Narcan and he asked city commissioners on Monday, April 25, to change that.

Police across the nation are equipped with Narcan because they're often the first to respond to the scene of a heroin overdose, Schiele said. "Instead of standing around watching somebody die while we're waiting for F-M Ambulance, we could have first responders or police, if it were required, administer Narcan."

Ambulance crews are the only responders currently equipped with Narcan.

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But it's not so simple, officials from the fire, police and public health departments told commissioners. Narcan isn't a miracle cure - its use still requires proper training and policies - and, until recently, the state training requirement was too high for many first responders.

Previous coverage on Narcan

For Schiele, the good news is state requirements have changed and Fargo firefighters will soon be equipped with Narcan.

Fire Chief Steve Dirksen said his department still has to develop protocols for its use to match other first responders in the area.

But police will likely not be equipped with Narcan; in part, because its use requires 40 hours of medical training and, in part, because they can rely on firefighters and ambulance crews, Police Chief David Todd said. While it's true that many police departments are equipped, he said, many have to be because they're the only full-time first responders in their area.

Heroin kills by hooking up with receptors in the user's brain, which causes the body to relax so much that the user loses consciousness and stops breathing. Narcan, generically known as naloxone, stops that from happening by blocking those receptors.

The breathing is the important part.

More coverage on heroin

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Fargo police officers who arrive first won't have to stand around and watch the victim of an overdose die; they can perform CPR, Todd said. That can keep the victim alive long enough for other responders to administer Narcan.

People with friends and family members addicted to heroin have been encouraged to get Narcan kits, but Dirksen said they could also learn CPR.

The fire chief said Narcan isn't a "magic drug" like many in the public think. It's designed to counter heroin, but may not work so well on fentanyl, a much more potent drug that has been found in heroin in the Fargo-Moorhead area, he said. Dirksen said he understands that it is effective 70 percent of the time.

F-M Ambulance earlier projected that it would use Narcan more than 90 times this year, up from 65 in 2015 and 57 in 2014. But Dirksen said he now thinks it'll be more like 100 to 120 times.

Public Health Director Ruth Bachmeier said Narcan is a wonderful tool, but it's just one component of the city's fight against heroin addiction, which requires more public education and more treatment facilities.

Commissioner Mike Williams said that 10 to 12 years ago when methamphetamine was the drug of choice, he remembers the community and state working together to warn about the danger with public meetings. Is that happening now? he asked.

Todd said a discussion is starting, but the local community also has to coordinate its response. That will eventually require discussions about what policy approach to use, he said, such as harm reduction measures such as needle exchanges and methadone clinics.

That's in line with what Schiele said he wants.

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"The road to addiction recovery can't start in the morgue," he said before Monday's meeting. "You can't say they made their bed, let them die in it. That's pretty cruel and heartless."

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