Chattanooga's fire departments will soon become "safe havens" for residents struggling with opioid addiction.
The initiative, a joint effort between the Chattanooga Fire Department and the Hamilton County Coalition, will launch on Aug. 31 and provide 24-hour assistance for those seeking to be connected with treatment and recovery options. All stations within the city are participating.
It's part of the Nu-Start program, which is derived from The U.S. Department of Justice's Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Program. The program's focus is to combat the opioid epidemic by implementing a commitment to reduce the opioid abuse and misuse and the number of overdose fatalities.
Opioid overdose deaths in Tennessee have increased in recent years. In 2017, there were 1,268 deaths, up from 754 in 2013, according to state Department of Health data.
"As many hospital emergency rooms can become overwhelmed with patients, this program assists all by weeding out individuals seeking assistance that may not need immediate medical attention but need immediate help," according to a news release from the Hamilton County Coalition.
The coalition said residents who chose to participate can speak with a firefighter who will arrange or provide a medical assessment within the scope of their training, the release states. If there is an immediate medical or psychiatric need, that person will be transported to the appropriate medical facility. However, if there are no immediate concerns, the resident will be picked up by a member of the Nu-Start team and taken to a respite facility to get proper care.
Seth Miller, executive deputy chief of the Chattanooga Fire Department, said in a statement that the "program is a natural fit for the department and our community because of our response to overdose emergencies and our locations throughout the city."
The ultimate goal, he said, is to prevent opioid-related overdoses.
"Unfortunately, overdose responses are far too common," he said. "If we can help prevent one overdose through this proactive intervention, then it will be worth the effort."
Miller said that prior to the launch of this program, the fire department "would have simply responded to an overdose, provided patient care, and would not have connected individuals with care beyond immediate medical stabilization."
Now, he said, "we now have the opportunity to connect community members with assistance through the Nu-Start team that goes beyond our scope and ability toward a long-term rehabilitation opportunity. ...
"It's a win-win for citizens, our community and the department."
Those seeking assistance will be required to drop any needles and paraphernalia into a collection bin located at each station prior to seeking treatment.
If any weapons are in the possession of an individual seeking assistance, the Chattanooga Police Department will need to be involved. If illegal substances are in the possession of an Individuals seeking assistance, Chattanooga police will be notified for disposal purposes only.
"This initiative is designed to effectively combine all of the resources and connections the Chattanooga Fire Department and Hamilton County Coalition have to better help anyone seeking treatment for their opioid addiction," Hamilton County Coalition Executive Director Camilla Bibbs-Lee said in a statement. "The process will begin once an individual comes to a Safe Station wanting help. From there, a warm handoff will be made to Nu-Start to begin the process of getting the individual to treatment, while the fire station continues servicing emergencies throughout the community."
The Hamilton County Coalition is focused upon empowering communities and reducing the risk of alcohol, tobacco and prescription drug misuse and abuse among youth and adults in Chattanooga and the Southeast. As the regional hub, the coalition provides free services to include environmentally friendly ways of disposing of unwanted mediation, medication lock boxes, opioid overdose reversal training, free naloxone, and assistance with opioid treatment, family counseling and recovery services.
There will be several events on Aug. 31, also known as International Overdose Awareness Day, to launch the initiative and spread awareness about prescription drug and alcohol abuse.
— Station 1, 218 E. Main St., at 9:30 a.m.
— Bethlehem Center, 200 W. 38th St., 10 a.m.-12 p.m.
— Focus Treatment Center, 7429 Shallowford Road, 10 a.m.-12 p.m.