Tampa Bay cops take on new duty: saving lives threatened by drug overdose

Published February 12

TAMPA — The call came in as a "non-breather."

When Tampa police Officer Tommy Baden arrived, he found an unconscious man lying on the floor between two hotel beds and a distraught woman giving him CPR. She told Baden they’d both injected heroin.

"She was kind of panicking," recalled Baden, 31, "and he was turning blue."

Baden went back to his car for Narcan, an overdose antidote drug distributed to patrol officers just weeks before. He had heard the drug worked well but this was his first time using it.

He snapped on a pair of latex gloves, assembled the Narcan kit’s two-piece applicator and sprayed the drug into each of the man’s nostrils. When paramedics arrived a minute later, the man was already regaining consciousness.

"It was like he was just taking a nap," Baden said.

Across the Tampa Bay area, law enforcement officers like Baden are arriving at overdose calls, administering naloxone and reviving people before paramedics arrive. Agencies here are part of a growing number in Florida and throughout the country that are handing out the antidote to patrol officers who are using it to bring drug users back from the brink of death.

Tampa police officers alone have used the drug nearly two dozen times since receiving the kits in November, a number that shocked police Chief Brian Dugan.

"These officers are heroes," said Dr. Tamas Peredy, medical director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa. "They’re saving lives."

• • •

Treating an overdose victim is a race against the clock.

An overdose happens when opioids overwhelm the receptors in the brain that regulate the respiratory system. Breathing slows, then stops. Oxygen levels in the blood drop, affecting the heart’s rhythm and increasing the risk of cardiac arrest.

Narcan, also known as naloxone, works by quickly removing opioids from the receptors, said Alfred Aleguas, managing director of the Florida Poison Information Center.

"You have a very short window of time to receive naloxone and not have any bad outcomes," Aleguas said, noting that the brain can be damaged if deprived of oxygen for more than about five minutes. "The quicker you can get it into someone who’s overdosed, the better."

Paramedics have been carrying naloxone for decades, but its use by law enforcement agencies is relatively new, coming after the development of two new ways to administer the drug — an auto-injector device used on a patient’s thigh and a nasal spray approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2015.

Both are easy to use and the drug has no side effects, so health officials and organizations like the American Society of Addiction Medicine recommend that law enforcement officers keep some form of naloxone on hand.

In Florida, at least 26 of the state’s 67 sheriff’s offices have distributed naloxone to their deputies, a number on an upward trend, said Nanette Schimpf, a spokeswoman for the Florida Sheriffs Association. Officers at about 70 of the state’s roughly 250 police departments are carrying the drug, according to the Florida Police Chiefs Association.

For many agencies, officer safety is a prime motivator.

With heroin’s resurgence and the emergence of powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, officers need to be prepared if a colleague is accidentally exposed, said Pasco County sheriff’s Capt. Chris Beaman.

"We have detectives doing hand-to-hand transactions with drug dealers who often don’t know everything that’s in the drug they’re selling," Beaman said.

Sheriff Chris Nocco decided to purchase enough nasal spray kits for all patrol deputies, for their own protection and to help overdose victims, Beaman said. On the first day they were distributed last March, a deputy used one to successfully revive an overdose victim.

Since then, deputies have successfully use their kits at least 49 times, according to agency data.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office started distributing naloxone auto-injector kits to deputies in late November. Since then, deputies have used the drug at least nine times and successfully revived people in each case.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said deputy safety was the main motivation; the county’s EMS responders already arrive quickly. He said he’s glad deputies have been able to revive people, but also disheartened.

"That success is not a good success because it shows the magnitude of the opioid and overdose problem and that a whole bunch of people are out there taking drugs that are not what they think they are," Gualtieri said.

• • •

At the Tampa Police Department, Dugan said he hoped he wasn’t wasting the $45,000 his agency spent on 850 kits — $35,000 from the Law Enforcement Trust Fund and $10,000 from a private donor. He figured officers wouldn’t use them often because Tampa Fire Rescue has short response times.

Since Nov. 23, however, officers have used the drug at least 22 times. In two cases, officers and paramedics were unable to revive the victim at the scene. In most others, though, victims regained consciousness or their vital signs improved before paramedics arrived.

"I was shocked," Dugan said. "We’re saving people’s lives and giving officers awards for it."

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office received a batch of nasal spray kits through a Florida Sheriffs Association grant in November and have successfully revived seven people, said spokesman Danny Alvarez.

"At this point it is too early to determine the future of Narcan within the agency as we are just starting to use it in the field," Alvarez said.

The Clearwater Police Department provided kits to its officers but have not used them for an overdose yet, a spokesman said.

None of the local agencies have had to use naloxone on an officer accidentally exposed to drugs.

The St. Petersburg Police Department has opted not to give naloxone to officers because paramedics typically arrive quickly, a spokeswoman said. The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office has also opted to leave the treatment to paramedics, a spokeswoman said.

Some U.S. law enforcement agencies are steering clear of the drug for other reasons, some citing a lack of resources for obtaining the drugs and training personnel. They see the duty as better suited to medical workers.

Officials at agencies that carry naloxone, though, said the rank and file have accepted the new role without much complaint.

"We’re happy the department took it on and it’s been very successful," said Abe Carmack, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, the officers’ union.

Tampa police Officer Chris Veron has used Narcan on two calls, helping revive someone each time.

"It’s not like we’re going in there and digging into wounds," said Veron, 27. "If we get to a call first and someone is dying, this is something simple and easy I can deploy in five seconds."

Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny said officials there are also glad the Police Department took on the extra role. His own agency’s data shows paramedics’ use of naloxone has increased in each of the last three years, a sign that opioid abuse could also be on the rise.

"Anything that will help save lives, we’re in favor of," Penny said.

•••

Ten days after he revived the man in the hotel room, at a Howard Johnson’s on North Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa Officer Baden responded to another overdose call.

He arrived at a northwest Tampa bungalow to find a 28-year-old woman lying unconscious between the bathtub and toilet, her face bluish-gray and her breath shallow. Another officer handed Baden a naloxone kit.

Minutes after Baden sprayed the mist into her nose, she woke up, confused about why police were in her house but apparently okay.

Baden said he understands that saving lives by taking on what was once a paramedic duty ==is a new reality for police.

"We’re first responders, just the same."

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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