XENIA — First responders in Greene County are being forced to ramp up safety precautions because of a white powder that’s 10,000 times stronger than morphine and even more potent than fentanyl.
Carfentanil, a synthetic opioid used as an elephant tranquilizer, is becoming a new killer not just for addicts, but for safety crews as well. It’s 100 times stronger than fentanyl — which is the cause of many overdoses — and touching the tiniest flake could be deadly.
In Xenia there has been at least one confirmed overdose death where carfentanil was present, according to Captain Alonzo Wilson.
It’s become a scary situation for safety officials.
“It’s something new,” he said. “When you start seeing these cases … the guys are being more vigilant about wearing the protective gear that’s provided for them. A new awareness.”
Across the county, this year is shaping up to be a more deadly year compared to 2016. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Ohio has the fourth highest drug overdose death rate. In 2015, the Ohio Department of Health reported that fentanyl and other synthetic opioids accounted for 37 percent of overdose deaths.
Greene County, as of June, has seen “almost 30” overdose deaths in 2017 compared to a total of 37 deaths in 2016 and 20 in 2015. Greene County Coroner’s Office Administrator William Harden said that the coroner’s office has spent more than half its budget already this year on autopsies, adding that the individuals who have died from overdoses have shown “something else” in their system — typically fentanyl and carfentanil.
Harden said the coroner’s office has not observed the “grey death” — which appears to be a mixture of several opioids including fentanyl and carfentanil — take any lives.
City of Beavercreek Police Captain Chad Lindsey said his officers wear latex gloves when collecting and packaging any type of evidence, including unknown substances that appear to be some type of drug.
Procedures have remained the same for the police department, although Lindsey did say drug field testing techniques — including the use of current field testing kits and what additional protective equipment is needed — is currently being evaluated.
“Our main concern at this point is to continue to effectively collect and package all evidence in a criminal investigation while minimizing the possible exposure to dangerous substances,” he said.
Lindsey said the police department has had 38 overdose incidents reported since Jan. 1. Overdose-related death statistics were not available at press time.
Paramedics and firefighters from the Beavercreek Township Fire Department are taking similar precautions — wearing latex gloves — but are also wearing glasses at every call, and sometimes even masks and gowns.
“Situation awareness is something we do every day,” Deputy Chief Scott Dorsten said.
According to Dorsten, the department is continuing to educate its crews on the hazards associated with handling drugs.
When paramedics administer medicine, like Narcan, to patients, wearing masks is a standard precaution. A very messy scene might require gowns, which paramedics already carry by procedure, Dorsten said.
But the more dangerous times are when the scene is not messy, or the presence of drugs — or even the specific type of drug — is not obvious.
“There are times when you can be exposed to it and not be immediately aware of it — maybe when it’s on your clothes — so you have to use caution with that,” he said.
More problems arise when drugs like heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil are mixed into other drugs, and crews are unaware or unable to assess the entirety of the situation.
Dorsten said his crews are taught the signs and symptoms of overdose, and are instructed to monitor themselves and look out for their co-workers.
But, recognizing the signs of an overdose is not always that simple.
Substances that are on skin or clothes — which have to be absorbed into the body to get into the bloodstream — present a problem as the individual may have cleared the call and left the scene well before experiencing any side effects. In addition, different drugs have different absorption rates.
According to Dorsten, the department’s crews have already responded to calls involving heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil.
“It’s part of the progression of the drug trade, unfortunately,” Dorsten said of the increase in heroin and the mixing of drugs.
According to Dorsten, the fire department is planning more training for its crews and will modify precautions as needed.
“You learn as you go, as changes come,” he said.
Fairborn police wear gloves and other safety equipment when dealing with potential or actual overdose cases, according to Sgt. Willard Watts.
Fairborn’s firefighters and medics always wear gloves and when necessary, masks, according to officials. But what can’t be accounted for is the manpower stress an overdose puts on the departments, potentially leaving others vulnerable as overdose cases require a plethora of responders.
During an overdose call in which the patient is conscious and breathing, two officers would respond, in addition to two firefighter/EMTs riding in a fire engine and two firefighter/EMTs riding in a medic vehicle.
If the overdose patient is unconscious, two officers would respond in addition to two firefighter/EMTs in a fire engine and four firefighter/EMTs riding in two separate medic vehicles as well as the battalion chief. That means nine safety personnel are responding to one overdose call.
“It takes a lot of manpower,” Watts said. “If we have an overdose, there are always two officers who are dispatched and paramedic/fire [personnel] is dispatched and that’s on one overdose. [If the person dies] the officers will be there even longer with the coroner getting involved. The manpower, itself, for this is huge.”
Fairborn Fire Department Operations Chief David Reichert highlighted that calls involving an unconscious patient require more firefighter/EMTs on scene as many actions have to take place in a short period of time and the patient may require being lifted and carried before being transported to the hospital.
“When two or three officers are tied up on an overdose, they’re not out patrolling the streets, responding to other calls, they’re not visible or available to the public if they’re busy with someone who has overdosed,” Watts said.
Fairborn has responded to 116 overdose calls in 2017. Nine have resulted in death. But there may be more.
“If we respond to an overdose, take a report and that person gets transported to the hospital and they die at the hospital, then we aren’t aware of that,” Fairborn Police Watts said. “The ones we are aware of have died [on the scene].”
Officers were beginning to see a spike in February as it included the most overdose calls at that point. April and May had at least 20 overdose calls. And it appears it’s going to be a busy summer as officials have already responded to 10 overdoses as of June 6.
“The heroin problem is an epidemic,” Watts said. “It’s not just in Fairborn. If you go to any community in America, there’s some sort of heroin issue … Fentanyl is what they’re mixing it with and what the majority of them are overdosing on.”
Police officers in Xenia carry kits that not only include Narcan but also protective gear such as eye shields and gloves.
“The officers have to keep gloves on when they’re dealing with any kind of drugs now,” Wilson said. “The officers realize that they need to have gloves on constantly.”
Wilson said they also worry about drugs blowing in their faces when its windy.
“We’re aware of it and we have to have protective gear for them in the car,” he said.
While the officers are required to wear the gear, sometime’s it’s not always feasible, Wilson said.
“Police work, sometimes there’s split-second things you have to do right away,” he said. “(But) when given the time, they are to wear the protective gear.”
The fire division is also being more vigilant due to the seriousness of carfentanil and other opioids.
“With our guys … obviously they’re always wearing gloves and protective gear,” Chief Ken Riggsby said. “They don’t typically wear masks. If there is powder, they need to mask up. It’s a standard we do anyways as far as protection we do for our guys.”
The same is true for the Xenia Township Fire Department.
The firefighters and medics are trained so when they first arrive on a scene they observe first.
“They want to look around and see what’s around,” Riggsby said. “We never know what we’re walking into anymore.”
If one of his men is uncomfortable about the situation, Riggsby said they know to back out and properly prepare or to get an officer if needed.
First responders have been advised not to “field test” any drugs they encounter as a method to minimize exposure. Wilson said Xenia officers can still field test.
Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Greene County native and resident, advises against that.
“Just get it to our crime lab,” he said via text message to Greene County News. “The stuff is so very dangerous and many times law enforcement can’t really tell what it is. We are getting in the lab a lot of mixtures now. Very different.”
While there has only been the one known case of carfentanil, Xenia has had its share of overdoses. Wilson said there have been 81 opioid-related ODs since Jan. 1 and six deaths related to an opioid OD. Riggsby said they have 109 ODs in the first quarter, including 52 in January when some “bad batches” of drugs hit the area.
“It’s an eye opener for us,” Wilson said. “We’re not even halfway through the year yet. I can’t say I’m seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”
Contact these reporters at 937-374-4444.