Opioid crisis: Lethal drugs threaten lives of local first responders; police make changes

WASHINGTON — The number of calls to police for opioid overdoses, and the threat those cases pose to responding officers, are motivating several departments across the D.C. region to change how they do their jobs.

The synthetic opioid fentanyl, and the even stronger carfentanil, have taken lives and threatened officers responding to overdose calls far too frequently, said Capt. Paul Liquorie, with the Montgomery County police.

“We had an officer who was transporting some fentanyl back to be logged into evidence. … While he was en route to the station he started getting symptomatic and had to be transported by EMS. It’s in these kinds of things that you have to be more careful,” he said.

It’s a threat to officers nationwide, typified by the recent case in Ohio where an officer suffered an accidental overdose by wiping powder off his uniform.

The officer had followed protocol and wore gloves and a mask when searching a car during the drug arrest. But East Liverpool police Capt. Patrick Wright said the officer later instinctively wiped his shirt when another officer noticed powder on it.

Even a few grains of fentanyl absorbed through the skin can be deadly.

“Anything that they’ve come into contact with could have that devastating drug on it,” said Fairfax County 2nd Lt. James Cox.

The risk for exposure has the Fairfax County, Virginia, and Anne Arundel County, Maryland, police departments ending the field testing of anything officers suspect could be an opiate.

“What our officers are trained to do now is package those drugs and submit them to the lab where they can be tested in controlled environment so decreases the risk of exposure,” said Lt. Ryan Frashure with Anne Arundel County police.

The department is also considering carrying more Narcan, the brand name for the opioid-overdose antidote naloxone. That way, if an officer and a patient are overcome, there is enough on hand, Frashure said.

“For heroin overdoes, the call comes out as cardiac incident. And from our protocol, that requires at least two patrol officers and a supervisor so all three of those individuals carry Narcan on their gun belts,” he said.

In Montgomery County, officers still field test, but the department is looking to upgrade the protective gear its officers wear.

“One of the things we’re looking at is more personal protective equipment similar to what EMS workers would use — face masks similar to those used in hospital settings or thicker grade or thicker material gloves,” Liquorie said.

Instead of risking the drug becoming airborne, Liqourie said, Montgomery County officers are using a new technology.

“They’re not actually pouring some of the substance into the test kit, so that makes it less likely to be airborne. They take a slight sample, almost with like a little dip stick, and then it’s put in a machine that analyzes the substance to tell the police officer who is testing it what it might be,” Liquorie said.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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