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Proactive EMS approaches to the opioid crisis

Learn how four paramedic chiefs are collecting and analyzing data to fight the opioid overdose epidemic in their communities


EMS has a role to play beyond responding to an opioid overdose and administering naloxone.

Photo/Greg Friese

BOCA RATON, Fla. — A panel of EMS leaders described the impact of the opioid overdose epidemic on EMS and how their services are combating the epidemic to Pinnacle EMS conference attendees.

The panelists were in agreement that EMS has a role to play beyond responding to an opioid overdose and administering naloxone. Whether it’s providing links to addiction treatments or sharing valuable EMS data with public health partners, EMS agencies are innovating and changing how they respond to an overdose and high-naloxone utilizer patients, and follow-up with patients after naloxone administration.

View a matrix, How EMS Can Fight the Opioid Overdose Crisis, of what was discussed by each panelist.

Memorable quotes from the opioid panel

Each panelist presented for 10 minutes about their local efforts before taking questions from the audience.

“EMS sits at the epicenter of the opioid epidemic.”
— Rob Lawrence, Richmond (Va.) Ambulance Authority

“Anyone that has an opioid problem also has a task force problem.”

When discussing safe administration sites, “Everything has to be on the table,” as a possible solution.
— Jon Kelley, Trinity (Mass.) EMS

“The most productive partnerships and programs are centered around data. Facts and information can guide decisions.”
— Jamie Pianka, Pro EMS, Cambridge, Mass.

“We are at ground zero for the opiate overdose epidemic. We are all suffering. Our overdoses have increased 50 percent in the last two years.”
— Dave Lewis, St. Charles (Mo.) County Ambulance District

Top takeaways on EMS response to the opioid overdose crisis

The panel shared the data-driven efforts their services have undertaken, in collaboration with other public health and mental health agencies. Here are five themes that emerged from the panel’s discussion of how they have analyzed the problem and implemented solutions.

1. Collect, analyze and share data

The primary focus of this session was on the importance of using data to understand the local impact of the opioid epidemic and track the effectiveness of interventions. Naloxone administration data from ePCRs gives near real-time information on overdose locations, which can help inform law enforcement, public health, mental health and harm-reduction efforts.

2. Collaborative efforts to combat the crisis

Kelley joked about the staggering time commitment he and other EMS leaders are putting into local meetings and task forces. He also made clear the important responsibility of EMS as a participant in every community’s interventions and programs. Kelley reported that 25 percent of his work time is opioid related. “I didn’t have 25 percent of my time free,” Kelley said.

Read Quality improvement in action: Cutting opioid overdose deaths in half to understand the Trinity EMS collaboration with the Lowell Fire Department; Lowell Police Department; Trinity EMS; Lowell House; the District Attorney of Middlesex County, Mass. and others. The objective of the Community Opioid Outreach Program is to decrease overdose-related deaths and the suffering related to addiction.

3. Paramedics can be recovery partners

Pianka described how a group of paramedics were trained to be recovery coaches for high-utilizers – addicts who had articulated an interest and willingness for addiction treatment. The early implementation of this program has already led to many valuable lessons learned.

EMTs and paramedics can also refer addicts to rehab and recovery resources. Some agencies are also following up with patients the day after an overdose to guide patients toward help.

4. Grant funding opportunities

At least two of the panelists are partnering with public health agencies to receive grant funding to purchase and distribute naloxone.

5. Get involved in primary prevention

Lewis emphasized the importance of prevention programs and the STOP Heroin campaign to bring an emotional and educational video presentation to middle school and high school students. The SCCAD prevention program attempts to effect behavior change and cause an emotion response. Lewis described the importance of “constant gentle pressures to effect change” in the community and his department’s willingness to talk to any media person, school class, civic group or elected official about the dangers of opioids.

Learn more about EMS response to the opioid crisis

To learn more about how EMS can fight the opioid crisis check out the presenters’ slides and supplements, hosted by FirstWatch. Also check out these additional EMS1 articles about how EMS agencies are responding to the opioid crisis.

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1 and EMS1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on LinkedIn.