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Fentanyl Poses Lethal Threat to First Responders

Pictured above: Chief Mark Lockhart (speaking) represented the IAFC during a national press conference at DEA headquarters on June 6 to discuss the dangers of handling fentanyl and its deadly consequences. From left: DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg, Fire Chief Mark Lockhart (speaking), Loudoun County Sheriff Michael Chapman,
International Association of Chiefs of Police, Executive Director Vincent Talucci Arlington County (Va.) Deputy Police Chief Daniel Murray Montgomery County (Md.) Assistant Police Chief Russ Hammill and National Sheriff's Association, Executive Director Jonathan Thompson.

The rise of opioids has gained much attention recently, however less attention has been paid to the dangers that these drugs pose to firefighters and EMS personnel responding to overdose patients and other opioid-related calls. Federal law enforcement officials have noted a dramatic increase recently in the amount of fentanyl and carfentinil that is being mixed into opioids sold on the streets, such as heroin. Fentanyl has been found in all fifty states. While fentanyl and carfentinil is extremely dangerous for opioid users, it poses serious risks for first responders and is lethal in extremely small doses.

Since fentanyl and carfentinil can be absorbed through the skin, eyes, or respiratory system, there is a very real danger for secondary exposures for firefighters and EMS personnel from drug residue on a patient’s clothing, furniture, and even carpeting. There have been numerous documented cases in the United States of firefighters and EMS personnel experiencing respiratory distress and other overdose symptoms after coming into incidental contact with fentanyl and carfentinil residue in the course of providing patient care. The lethality and ease of coming into contact with the drug underscores the need for firefighters and EMS personnel to exercise extreme caution when responding to suspected opioid-related calls. All responders should be careful to appropriately don and doff any personal protective equipment selected for use when responding to these calls.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration recently published a handbook and roll call video to educate first responders on the dangers presented by fentanyl and carfentinil. Fire chiefs should work closely with their medical directors to review this information and design protocols to protect firefighters and EMS personnel from exposures to these dangerous narcotics. Fire chiefs also should maintain regular contact with their law enforcement partners to understand which narcotics may be most prevalent in their communities.

Mark Lockhart is fire chief of the Stafford County (Va.) Department of Fire & Rescue. His is a member of the IAFC's Fire-Rescue-Med Conference Planning Committee and chairs the IAFC’s EMS Section Elections Committee and By-Laws Committee.

DEA warns local law enforcement and first responders about the dangers of fentanyl exposure

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