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'Backing the Blue' in the Opioid Epidemic

Wednesday, November 8, 2017
By Alan R. Hanson, Acting Assistant Attorney General

Fentanyl

The nation's opioid crisis reaches into every corner of our society, putting users and first responders alike at risk. The President recently underscored the dangers our nation is facing when he declared the crisis a nationwide public health emergency.

Now, a federal working group has released recommendations that represent a critical step toward keeping police officers, firefighters and EMS workers safe in the field. I'm pleased that the Office of Justice Programs participated in this working group. By following the new recommendations, agencies can manage the risks posed by encounters with dangerous synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and officers can perform their jobs without jeopardizing their safety. Specific recommendations include wearing gloves and appropriate protective clothing based on the situation encountered, being careful not to allow the substance to go airborne and promptly washing any skin contact with soap.

On November 1, the White House announced release of the working group's Fentanyl Safety Recommendations for First Responders. Composed of medical, public health, law enforcement, Fire/EMS and occupational stakeholders, the working group consulted medical research to ensure that the recommendations are relevant and tailored to first responders. Importantly, they are provided in an easily digestible, one-page format

The need for these guidelines is real. Fentanyl is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin. Readily available on the streets, it is often mixed with heroin and other drugs and is largely responsible for the dramatic increase in deaths due to overdose. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids were involved in 9,580 overdose deaths in 2015, a 72.2 percent increase from the year before.  Fentanyl seizures by law enforcement remained low and stable from 2010 through 2012, then began to climb in 2013. From 2013 through 2015, the numbers of seizures grew dramatically, from roughly 1,000 to 14,000, according to the CDC.

The Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General have directed the Department of Justice—including the Office of Justice Programs—to provide law enforcement officials with the tools and information they need to mitigate the risks associated with exposure to fentanyl and its analogues. In addition to participating in the working group, our Bureau of Justice Assistance created a naloxone toolkit that offers information and resources to help law enforcement agencies implement naloxone programs that can save citizens in the throes of an overdose. 

Opioids can cause death by slowing, and eventually stopping, a person's breathing. The drug naloxone reverses symptoms associated with an opioid overdose or inadvertent exposure, restoring respiration in two to five minutes. Officers are often first on the scene of an overdose, so it is critical that they take proper precautions and be prepared to administer this life-saving drug. As of March 2017, law enforcement agencies in at least 38 states have implemented naloxone programs.

The opioid crisis is devastating America's communities, taking lives and challenging the law enforcement community in new ways. Attorney General Sessions has used the phrase "Back the Blue" to emphasize the Justice Department's commitment to our nation's public safety officers. These brave men and women assume extraordinary risks, and the dangers they face—brought into full relief by this growing epidemic—seem to multiply daily. We owe it to them to make sure they have the tools they need to remain safe as they protect our communities.

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