New England fire chiefs heed local call to action on opioid crisis

Old Mystic Fire Chief Kenneth W. Richards Jr. called on fellow fire chiefs from New England at a meeting Thursday in Springfield, Mass., to draft a position statement urging state and federal representatives for a stronger response to the heroin and opioid crisis.

Richards, a member of the executive board of the New England Division of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said he barely had time to raise the motion before at least three chiefs responded with a second. The vote that followed was unanimous, he said by phone Thursday afternoon.

The draft will be voted on at a meeting in April and forwarded to the governors and state and federal politicians in all six New England states, Richards said. The next step, he said, would be to take their message to the International Association of Fire Chiefs, which he said has a lot of influence in Washington.

"There's a crisis," Richard said. "We can't ignore it. We need to concentrate on getting it off the street, stricter sentencing for dealers, and better and more access for patients to get treatment."

Fire chiefs from all six states reported their departments have been responding to a surge in overdose cases, Richards said. In Connecticut alone, 1,076 people died from overdoses in 2017, and 646 of the deaths involved the ingestion of fentanyl, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Richards had invited Frank Maletz of East Lyme, a retired orthopedic surgeon, and James Spellman Jr. of Groton, a retired high school teacher and coach, to make a presentation at the board meeting. He said Maletz and Spellman "hit a grand slam," fielding a half-hour of questions. 

"I don't have to spend time talking about the tragedy that is on the streets," Maletz said during a phone interview Wednesday about the presentation. "They get it. They are on the ground treating this and they're frustrated. They don't get the kind of feedback we do in the medical profession, where we can follow somebody and say they did get better."

Instead, Maletz said he would be making a 30-minute presentation on the neurobiology of addiction. He frequently has presented to local groups on how opioids "hijack" the brain but said that is just the tip of the iceberg.

"There's been recent data that all addiction, whether it's chemical or behavioral, affects the same pathways of the brain," Maletz said.

He said he's calling the problem Psychoactive Addiction Disorders (PSAAD, pronounced "sad") and taking into consideration changes in the brain caused by everything from caffeine to carfentanil, those who are "workaholics" and the growing number of people addicted to "screen time" with electronic devices.

"If you look at the PET scans of folks who are living on their cellphones, it is the exact same pathways that heroin affects," he said. "We're really missing the mark by speaking of the opioid crisis alone. What I'm going to say is, pick your drug or behavior of choice. This is what brains do normally. If you give it something, it gets really excited."

He said this approach could lead to better treatment methods.

"You want to have the brain secrete its own dopamine," Maletz said. "I think there are some good sides to having passions. When your kids get involved in sports, when they want to play music because they're passionate about it, they're actually getting their own dopamine."

Spellman, who was motivated to act after several former students and their children died from overdoses, said the southeastern Connecticut contingent is looking for the New England contingent to exercise whatever control they have over matters of heroin and opioids within their jurisdiction. State courts, he said, should "hammer" dealers of opioids with mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years in prison. Connecticut should reopen some of the prisons it has closed, if necessary, he said.

"Over the past four years, I've dealt with, face to face, in person, 500 addicts, people who will do what they have to do, steal from their parents, from their friends, prostitute their bodies and sell to maintain their own habit," Spellman said. "All are bad. You've already lost control of your own life, now you're endangering others. Do you want continuing crime and dealing on the street or do you want it where it is contained and not spreading?"

Richards said after the meeting, Fire Chief Steven Locke from Burlington, Vt., the association's international director, talked of an overdose that occurred in Burlington while the meeting was taking place and how the city's "intervention team" is trained to respond. The patient, a 25-year-old female, would be taken to the emergency room, treated and released, Richards said. The following morning, the deputy police chief, fire chief and counselor would visit her home and offer her a ride and a free stay at a rehabilitation program if she would go immediately.

Richards said he would be talking to officials back in southeastern Connecticut about instituting a similar program.

Richards said the New England position statement would be somewhat different from the one that was passed in September 2017 by the Connecticut Fire Chief's Association and sent to elected officials and officeholders.

k.florin@theday.com

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