Dave Polachowski on firefighter responses to drug overdoses

Milwaukee Fire Department Captain Dave Polachowski explains how firefighters work to provide assistance and services to people suffering addiction as fentanyl causes opioid overdose deaths to surge.

By Zac Schultz | Here & Now

April 25, 2023 • Southeast Region

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Zac Schultz:
So when you're reaching out to people, what are you trying to either get from them or get them to understand or connect them to?

Dave Polachowski:
Well, the first thing is we wanna put them at ease. We're not here to get them in trouble. We don't share their information unless they allow us. With the people we make contact with, they do have some aversion to law enforcement and we let them know that we don't share anything with law enforcement. We don't let their, if they have a PO, we don't advise their PO that we've made contact with them for whatever reason. They're protected by their HIPAA laws, by their HIPAA rights. So what we do is we kind of let them know right away, "Hey, we are just here to follow up "and offer you some services." And again, that's where we like to say, you know, the fire department badge gets us in the door and then that's where our peer support will kind of come in and say, "Hey, look it, here's what we're here to do." Are you interested in treatment? Do you wanna get some help for what you're using? A lot of times, people are still kinda standoffish. Other times, we can transport people immediately at that time if that's something they're interested in. We can get them into a treatment center for medication assisted treatment right at that moment. But what we do is we just advise them of everything that's, you know, available to them from not just us, but other entities throughout the city. We don't claim to have all the answers, but if we need information, we know where to get it or who to talk to. And that's what we do. We try to help provide them with treatment options, housing options. Our biggest barrier, honestly, is making contact and that comes from the EMS reports. If it doesn't have all the information we need on there to make contact or the information is incorrect, and that could be a host of reasons, not necessarily the fire department's reason, but if the person's unresponsive, we can't get any information from them at that time. Maybe they didn't give an honest response because of fear of some type of, you know, interference from an outside agency that they don't wanna have contact with. That's our biggest barrier, is just making the initial contact with these people. Once we do, we just offer them services, as much as or as little as they want. We try to meet them where, pardon me. We try to meet them where they are at. Some people are tired and they were just waiting for us to come to the door. They just needed the right people to show up at their door to say, "Hey, look it, do you want some help?" Other people are like, "Ah, I'm okay. "I really don't need any help. "This was a one-off for me. "I don't use opioids, you know, I use crack, cocaine," something other than what they thought they were using or what they ended up using. And, more than likely, it's fentanyl. So I've had people who are older than me, and I'm 56, who wake up and there's the fire department standing there and they're very surprised because they were using cocaine. I think now, in this day and age, I find it surprising that people don't think there's fentanyl in their drugs because it's everywhere. It is, it's so cheap and it gives you such a high that the drug dealers are putting it in everything because they wanna have the good stuff and they want you coming back to them. And if that means there's fentanyl in there and they're gonna still potentially kill somebody, that's a chance apparently they're willing to take with other people's lives, unfortunately.

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