As NFPA Journal® reported earlier this year in their cover story "Chasing a Killer," the nation and our first responders are grappling with an opioid crisis. On Tuesday, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) released a roll call video and guidelines for firefighters, EMS professionals and police officers regarding the handling of powerful opiates like fentanyl, which are up to 50 times more potent than heroin. The news comes just as the New England media reports that carfentanil, a drug that’s 10,000 times stronger than morphine, has arrived in Massachusetts joining New Hampshire and a dozen other states across the country dealing with the lethal substance.
During the announcement, Acting DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg stated that “Fentanyl: A Brief Guide for First Responders” should be required reading. He added, “Something that looks like heroin could be pure fentanyl—assume the worst. Don’t touch these substances or their wrappings without the proper personal protective equipment.”
This week, Massachusetts State Police also announced that carfentanil, an extremely lethal synthetic opioid never before seen in the Bay State, had arrived. The drug is used to sedate elephants. It can be absorbed through the skin or accidentally inhaled. If a firefighter, paramedic or law enforcement authority comes in contact with an amount as small as a penny, it could be fatal.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein with the U.S. Justice Department participated in the DEA announcement explaining that "the Department of Justice is approaching this crisis with all-hands-on deck. We need to use all the tools available to us: prevention, treatment and prosecution." He offered staggering statistics and the following drug-related data during his remarks:
- In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses – 1,000 dead every week. More than 33,000 people died from heroin, fentanyl and other opioid drugs.
- The preliminary numbers for 2016 show an increase to almost 60,000 deaths. That will be the largest annual increase in American history.
- For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses now are the leading cause of death.
- Law enforcement officers and medical professionals are struggling to deal with opioids in every state.
- The crisis is not limited to any region of the country.
- Heroin and fentanyl-related deaths are still increasing across the United States - particularly in the Northeast and Midwest.
"The opioid epidemic nationwide has caused havoc and heartbreak for our children, friends and neighbors. Any fentanyl exposure can kill innocent law enforcement, first responders and the public. As we continue to fight this epidemic, it is critical that we provide every tool necessary to educate the public and law enforcement about the dangers of fentanyl and its deadly consequences,” Rosenstein said during the DEA media event.