With the opioid crisis in Delray Beach raging on, drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in 2015, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Habitually tending to overdose victims is taking a toll on some first responders in Delray Beach. Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus, who also has served as the city’s fire chief, wants to make sure first responders are getting the support they need to cope with the epidemic.
“I’m in my 24th year of fire service and I’ve seen countless deaths, but it should never become the norm to see more kids die in your first year of employment than some of us have seen in our entire career,” he said. “I started asking questions and I didn’t like what I was seeing. Some have had a dismissive attitude toward death and others have had no emotion at all.”
Although a Critical Incident Stress Management team has always been in place, De Jesus said services like that are rarely utilized by personnel. He decided to bring in a counselor and make it mandatory for first responders on all shifts to attend.
“Firefighters have the fastest rising rate of suicide,” he said. “We are trained to cope and cope. A lot of people don’t seek counseling or help because they don’t want to be seen as the weak link. We don’t ever want our firefighters to internalize any of this stuff. And seeing people overdosing should never be as routine as a trip to the grocery store.”
While every person has a different coping mechanism, De Jesus said the recent overdoses are hitting too close to home for some.
“Many of these opioid overdoses are 20-somethings,” he said. “Some of the firefighters coming in to save them are around that age, have friends that age or are older and have children that age.”
Some of the toughest calls, De Jesus said, come when firefighters have to help children.
“The calls that really hit them hard are the 3-year-old child who walked outside by himself and rang the neighbors doorbell because mommy is laying there with a needle in her arm,” he said. “Or the helpless baby strapped in a car seat while mommy and daddy have overdosed in the front seat of the car. You can’t help but feel angry and sad that children have been put in predicaments like this.
“And first responders have to cope with that. We didn’t sign up for this job to say we’ll help some. Our job is to try to save you regardless of the reason you’re in that predicament.”
De Jesus brought in a national speaker to talk to firefighters on suicide prevention and plans to make it a recurring practice.
What keeps De Jesus and his fellow firefighters going is the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives on a daily basis.
“People call us on their worst day,” he said. “Every time someone dials 911, we have an opportunity to make a difference in their lives. Our troops work very hard. Even after a loved one has died who we tried to save, their families will come by the fire station to thank us for doing all we could do.”
Delray Beach firefighters and police officers also have access to the Employee Assistance Programs in which they can seek free counseling.
Assistant Chief of Police Mary Santos-Olsen keeps a Narcan emergency pack in her patrol car at all times. Once inhaled, the medication can rapidly pull a person out of an opioid overdose. She has had many discussions with Police Chief Jeff Goldman and fellow officers about being exposed to the climbing number of overdose cases and what it’s doing to their psyche.
“I’ve been a police officer 33 years and I’d see deaths resulting from violent crimes, traffic crashes or natural causes,” Santos-Olsen said. “Now officers are seeing overdoses multiple times a day. Many overdoses have happened in the public eye throughout Delray in alley ways, parks and storefronts.”
The Delray Beach Police Department has been working with Healthier Delray Beach, Delray Beach Drug Task Force and other organizations to help first responders and civilians deal with the ongoing overdose issue.
“Starting in February, we had Dr. Revital Goodman talk about how the brain processes trauma and we got as many officers to attend as possible, as well as civilians,” Santos-Olsen said. “Officers end up internalizing a lot of stuff. And we have had dispatchers experiencing trauma taking overdose calls as they try to help a victim’s loved one over the phone.”
She said she encourages all supervisors and first responders to keep a check on each other.
“Later this year, we’ll be coordinating a stress management workshop with Dr. Goodman,” Santos-Olsen said.
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