Village public safety officers receive opioid response training in Juneau as statewide overdose rates rise
Michael Betts is a village public safety officer in the community of Hydaburg on Prince of Wales Island. Under the fluorescent lights of a classroom, he knelt in front of a life-size mannequin that he was told was overdosing on opioids.
Betts checked his pulse.
“Hey man,” he said, shaking the dummy. “He’s not breathing.”
Betts quickly unwrapped a packet of naloxone nasal spray, stuck it up the model’s nose, and sprayed it.
“You’re still going to want to call 911 once you’ve administered this Narcan,” a fire department trainer told him. “When this goes into effect, they will make immediate withdrawals.”
Betts is the only first responder who lives in Hydaburg, a community of about 400 people. He said he was aware that a lot of opioids were smuggled into town and then distributed to the rest of Prince of Wales Island, but he had yet to resuscitate a real person with naloxone.
“Everyone probably has Narcan in their purse, in their glove compartment, somewhere in their house in a drawer,” Betts said. “Often we are not even called. We hear about it the next day. »
Betts and eight others came to Juneau to participate in an opioid overdose response course offered by the Central Council of Alaskan Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, with funds from a federal grant. The classroom role-play aims to prepare him and the other public safety officers in the village for an overdose situation, where they will likely be the first person on the scene.
Alaska has the fastest rising opioid overdose rate in the nation. More than 200 Alaskans died of drug overdoses last year.
Jason Wilson directs the Tlingit and Haida Central Council’s Public Safety Department. He said VPSOs are the definition of first responders.
“They’re not just law enforcement,” he said. “They are also paramedics. They are also the paramedics. They are the fire chief, or they are part of the fire department. They play an important role in search and rescue within a community. They control animals in many of our communities.
The Tlingit and Haida Central Council administers the VPSO program for the Southeast Alaskan communities of Kake, Angoon, Pelican, Saxman, Hydaburg, Thorne Bay, and Kasaan.
“Being able to respond to overdoses is really important to the tribe and in our communities. So we’re very excited about that,” Wilson said.
They not only learn how to deal with a health emergency, they also learn how to control narcotics. One of the instructors the Central Council brought in was Chris Cuestas, a former police detective and national drug expert.
He said Alaska is experiencing a spike in opioids, particularly fentanyl, and the state has the same distribution patterns and underground narcotics market network that it sees nationwide.
“The challenge is how to minimize their influence in Alaskan communities and villages,” he said.
This is a challenge because these remote communities are small and have few law enforcement resources. But Cuestas said it was also a strength. He thinks the VPSO program is ahead of the national curve because individual agents have so many roles.
“You’re actually able to participate in some of the prevention and response,” he said. “Even community education components to reduce some of the risk factors in the community.”
He said that’s the direction he expects a lot of law enforcement agencies in the Lower 48 to take.