- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 4, 2016

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - New Hampshire’s biggest city is opening its firehouse doors to drug addicts in a program that allows them to seek treatment in an effort to avert overdoses.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, a Republican running for governor, said Wednesday he hopes it can be a model for other cities on the front lines of the state’s opioid crisis. Dubbed Safe Station, the program will allow addicts to visit any of 10 firehouses that are open around-the-clock. Addicts will then be put in touch with experts who can help them with treatment options.

Gatsas and several other city officials said the program could cut down on overdoses, since addicts might not be aware of all their options when it comes to getting off drugs.

“Our mission is to provide an integrated emergency response to any situation that threatens the life, safety and the well-being of an individual,” Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan said in a statement. “We treat this epidemic as we would any emergency that threatens the life of someone within our city.”

Chris Hickey, the city’s emergency medical services officer, said firefighters will first check the vital signs of addicts before connecting them with treatment services. Along with opening firehouses, authorities are teaming up with Granite United Way to begin a 24-hour hotline for addicts. Callers will be connected to a live “recovery coach” at Hope for NH Recovery, a drug treatment facility.

“As we worked to develop Safe Station, we immediately recognized the need for a connection between the desire to begin the recovery process and getting to a place where you could start that process,” Hickey said. “Many people just don’t know where to begin.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports heroin overdose death rates more than tripled since 2010 as powerful, cheap forms swept America. New Hampshire has been one of the hardest hit states. It has seen sharp increase in overdose deaths, going from 201 in 2011 to 433 last year.

Like New Hampshire, law enforcement agencies across the country are reconsidering how they handle addicts.

Last year, Colerain Township in Ohio formed a “Quick Response Team” in which police, paramedics and addiction counselors combine to quickly steer users into treatment. Police in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, opened their door to addicts, with Police Superintendent Mike Chitwood announcing in March that drug users who come to the station seeking help will be passed on to substance abuse specialists.

And in Massachusetts, Gloucester’s police chief pioneered a program last year to help get addicts into treatment if they turn in their drugs and drug equipment.

“The death toll speaks for itself, and I have said repeatedly that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, so I whole-heartedly support this unique approach to saving lives,” Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard said in a statement. “My officers are doing all they can to stem the tide of illegal drugs in our city and we are making progress, but we must also serve those who are fighting addiction.”

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