Ohio town to invest in firehouse 'vending machines' for lifesaving drugs
About $220,000 is earmarked to buy 18 vending machines that paramedics and firefighters will have to use when restocking medic units with drugs
By Rick Rouan
The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Columbus firehouses soon will have vending machines that dispense life-saving drugs instead of sweet and salty treats.
About $220,000 of the city's 2017 capital budget is earmarked for the Columbus Division of Fire to buy 18 vending machines that paramedics and firefighters will have to use when restocking medic units with drugs.
Fire officials said the devices are similar to a candy machine, only they don't take cash or credit cards. They require a unique identification number and, in some cases, biometric scanners such as a thumbprint.
They will help the division better track and secure drugs that are regulated by state and federal agencies, said Battalion Chief Steve Saltsman, who oversees the division's support services bureau.
"I love it because what it does for us is reduces the possibility for clerical errors and abuse," he said.
The city currently uses a tag-and-log system to track medications. When firefighters need to restock a medication, they break the plastic tag and manually log it before resealing the container with a new tag.
Vending machines will automate that process. Everyone who has access to medications will have a unique identifying number to punch into the machine, Saltsman said, and the city likely will buy biometric scanners that will be used to verify identities.
The machines will feed data into a tracking system so fire officials can produce reports showing who accessed which medications. It also will track inventory and expiration dates so that Saltsman's division can be alerted when the machine needs to be restocked or expired drugs need to be removed.
If the machines work as intended, Saltsman said, the city could put them in all of its firehouses. The first machines likely will be installed in the fall.
More fire divisions across the state are starting to use the machines, but the cost has tempered their adoption, said Perrysburg Fire Chief Jeff Klein, president of the Ohio Fire Chiefs' Association. The machines cost about $12,500 each.
The cost of the machines is what caused the Cincinnati Fire Department to put the idea of buying them "on the back burner," District Chief Cedric Robinson said. Cincinnati is using a tag system similar to the one in Columbus, he said.
"They're supposed to document every break of a seal. Some companies make a lot of runs and they don't always document," Robinson said. "We're human. It's not always documented."
Klein said that jobs in a fire department lend themselves to injury, and unsecured drugs could tempt firefighters as well.
The first machines started showing up in Ohio about five years ago, Klein said. Perrysburg bought its vending machine two years ago.
"Everybody knows about the opiate and heroin epidemic. It's hit everybody," Klein said. "We really need to make sure that not just those medications are controlled but all medications."
Jackson Township Fire Capt. Bill Dolby said his department disposed of about $4,000 worth of drugs each month before it bought a vending machine three years ago. Now, that's dropped to between $500 and $1,000 a month because the tracking system makes it easier to find which medics have more drugs that can be used before they expire by other medics short on a supply.
Jackson Township has three machines, including one with locker-like containers for larger items and another that can be used for medications that must be refrigerated.
Saltsman said the whole concept behind Columbus Fire getting the machines is "security of our materials. We know who has what, where and when."
Copyright 2017 The Columbus Dispatch