Home Opinion The Opioid Crisis: Putting Public Safety Employees at Risk

The Opioid Crisis: Putting Public Safety Employees at Risk


The opioid crisis has been serious the last few years creating numerous public safety issues throughout the country.  The amount of opioid-related overdoses is astounding with many local public safety departments, (including police, fire and emergency medical services agencies), responding to multiple overdose cases each week. While President Trump has declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, the opioid epidemic presents numerous public safety challenges and risks to the personnel that work on patients suffering from opioid overdoses. The opioid epidemic is quite serious, perhaps more serious than many American citizens realize.

Potentially Compromised Resources

The opioid epidemic has resulted in an increase in 911 emergencies. According to PBS and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention emergency departments across the country has seen a sharp increase in patients visiting the emergency department with opioid-related overdoses. For emergency medical services, police and fire departments, this increase has a direct impact on the resources they use to manage emergencies. For every drug overdose they're working to handle, it means that their department will have fewer resources to work with for the next 911 call if it happens during the overdose emergency.  This can potentially compromise resources for a community making it potentially more difficult to handle the next 911 emergency.

Potential Exposure to Public Safety Personnel

The opioid epidemic also presents a number of potential exposure issues to public safety personnel.  When public safety personnel responds to an overdose-related emergency, they often come in contact with opioids potentially rendering a health emergency for the employee. In a case noted by U.S. News, a paramedic came into contact with a powdery substance requiring that she receive treatment for the drug exposure. The article by U.S. News also explained that 11 SWAT officers were exposed to heroin and fentynl when they used a flash-bang grenade on a scene. Responding to any overdose call means that public safety personnel, (police, fire, and emergency medical services), may be exposed to drugs at the scene which could require their own emergency treatment depending on the level of exposure.

Potential Violence to Public Safety Personnel

The opioid crisis presents other safety issues to police, fire and emergency medical services who respond to the 911 emergency.  When an individual who has overdosed on an opioid is given Narcan or Naloxone to reverse the effects of the opioid drug, they can often become violent towards public safety personnel. According to Gaddis and Watson, (1992), patients should be given restraints to prevent violence towards employees.  While this is certainly an important consideration, different protocols and policies across the country may prevent public safety employees from physically restraining overdose patients.

There are numerous policies that work to prevent violence against public safety personnel. An Executive Order by President Trump in 2017 works to prevent violence against law enforcement officers and in the State of New York it is a felony to assault an Emergency Medical Technician. But, in the heat of the moment after an individual has been revived with Narcan or Naloxone, a patient can become violent and can attack public safety personnel. Unfortunately, many drug addicts aren't thinking about the various public policies and laws that prevent assaults on public safety personnel.

The Opioid Crisis Is a Serious Public Health Emergency

President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency and it certainly is at every level of society. The opioid epidemic is creating resource management problems for agencies dealing with multiple 911 emergencies potentially making it difficult to manage multiple 911 calls at the same time.  The opioid epidemic can potentially expose public safety personnel to dangerous medications creating medical emergencies for these individuals when they've responded to an overdose call. Further, waking up an individual suffering from an opioid-related overdose can be a particularly dangerous situation for public safety personnel. The opioid epidemic is affecting so many different aspects of society in very serious ways. Hopefully, the new policies being developed in its wake will work to alleviate some of the burdens the epidemic has created.

Allison G. S. Knox Passionate about the issues affecting ambulances and disaster management, Allison focuses on Emergency Management and Emergency Medical Services policy. Allison has taught at the undergraduate level since 2010. Prior to teaching, she worked in a level-one trauma center emergency department and for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. She holds four master’s degrees in Emergency Management, National Security Studies, International Relations, and History; a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security; and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Allison is an Emergency Medical Technician, Lifeguard, and Lifeguard Instructor, and is trained in Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue. She serves on the Board of Trustees for Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society as Chancellor of the Southeast Region, Vice Chair of the Tactical Emergency Medical Support Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and serves as the Advocacy Coordinator of Virginia with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She is also a member of several committees including the Editorial Committee with APCO, the Rescue Task Force Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and the Advocacy Committee with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She also serves as Chair of the Leadership Development Program for the 2020 Pi Gamma Mu Triennial Convention. Allison has published several book reviews and continues to write about issues affecting ambulances, emergency management, and homeland security.