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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Chattanooga Fire Department Chief Phil Hyman speaks to the media at a news conference on Oct. 26, 2017, at Fire Station 1 on East Main Street.

The new joint effort between the Chattanooga Fire Department and the Hamilton County Coalition to provide 24-hour assistance for those seeking opioid addiction treatment exceeded expectations in its first month, according to Chattanooga Fire Chief Phil Hyman.

Seven people with substance use disorders came to fire stations for help in September and were connected to free treatment through the coalition's Nu-Start program, Hyman said.

"I really thought we'd have much less response," he said. "For us to have seven tells me we're kind of on the right track, and I was surprised. In a month's time, seven is a pretty high call volume when it comes to this kind of stuff."

He said fire stations were chosen as an entry point to the program because they're open 24/7 and firefighters are already trained emergency medical technicians.

"I like the fact that folks are comfortable enough to come to the fire stations, a place they trust, and us to be able to connect them with resources," Hyman said.

When people seeking treatment arrive at the stations, firefighters first confirm there are no immediate medical concerns and then connect the person to Nu-Start. The free program gets people the services they need — whether it's detox, inpatient treatment, or intensive outpatient treatment — and is supported through a state grant using federal funds allocated to the opioid epidemic.

Shawn Hickey, a lieutenant with the Chattanooga Police Department, said the goal is to get those swept up in the opioid epidemic the help they need.

"We know that the addict isn't going to go to a police station to turn themselves in," Hickey said. "[Firefighters] are some of the first responders just like police, but they have an emergency medical background."

All seven people who came to the fire stations were able to get help within the next day or two, he said. More than 115 people have gotten treatment through Nu-Start since the program began operating at full capacity around February.

Nu-Start also provides services for family members of people with opioid addiction. There's currently no limit on the amount of people the program can serve, and the grant lasts for at least three years, Hickey said.

People can access the program even if they don't have health insurance, and assistance is available for those with insurance who are unable to afford their co-payments.

More information about Nu-Start is available 24 hours a day by calling 423-208-3523, 423-208-3473 or visiting the coalition's website at www.hccoalition.org.

"The more we can get the word out, the better," Hickey said. "There is help. There is hope — you've just got to be open to having a new start, hence the program name."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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