WARRENTON — When Warrenton police officer Robert Wirt responded to a possible drug overdose outside the Mini Mart in late January, he saw a man laying on the ground, with the only sign of life his slow and shallow breaths.
If this had happened a little over a year ago, Wirt would have had to wait for a medic or firefighter to apply Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse opioid overdoses.
But Wirt was able to grab his overdose kit and administer it himself. Two doses later, the 35-year-old man was revived.
The intervention marked the first use of Narcan by a Warrenton police officer since the department started carrying the medication.
At the time, Wirt wasn’t thinking about being the first of anything.
“To me, honestly, I was thinking this could be someone’s son, somebody’s dad, somebody’s brother,” he said. “And then the training just kicked in.”
Police Chief Mathew Workman wasn’t sure what to expect when the program started, but emergency calls like the one outside Mini Mart are exactly why officers have the kits.
“We fought for over a year to get a naloxone program started,” he said. ”A year and a month before we use our first dose, and it’s all worth it.”
The Warrenton Police Department is one in a growing number choosing to carry naloxone — known by the brand name, Narcan — in the wake of a national opioid epidemic.
Workman’s mission to get officers trained on how to use Narcan began a couple of years ago after a young man was found dead after taking a synthetic opioid.
The idea is to enable officers to act quickly in overdose situations where they are first on the scene. Carrying Narcan also helps protect officers when they are handling drugs like fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that, even in trace amounts, can make someone sick if they are exposed to it, Workman said.
Across the country, some police departments have been concerned about taking on a job they perceive is better suited to medics.
But officers like Wirt prefer to have the tool available.
“It’s like pepper spray, or my gun, or my radio ... it’s just another tool that we have,” he said.
Workman is somewhat surprised that the department has only administered the medication one time.
“I expected to use it two or three times by now, but I guess that is also the benefit of living in an area with relatively fast Medix and fire response,” he said. “Sadly, I think we’ve had a few (overdose) situations where they weren’t called and we found them after.”
Other local police departments are also showing interest. Astoria is hoping to start a program similar to Warrenton’s by the end of the year, Deputy Police Chief Eric Halverson said.
Astoria police have felt overdoses have been handled effectively by the fire department, Halverson said.
But based on trends showing the benefits of early intervention and a discussion about naloxone at last month’s Oregon Association Chiefs of Police conference, the idea has been brought back to the forefront.
“Officers are often there before medical help,” Halverson said. “The more opportunities there are for intervention means there are more opportunities for someone to change their path.”
As Astoria looks to build a program, Warrenton faces the challenge of how to sustain it. The police department’s Narcan supply is set to expire in July, leaving the department to seek grant funding for new doses. Donations from a medical supplier could also help the department carry on another two years.
For Workman, it’s an investment worth making.
“(Addiction) is a beast that’s not easily conquered. Overdoses are often the catalyst to make changes. Other times it’s not,” the police chief said. “But human life is precious, and we need to try to do what we can to preserve it. How else do you make those decisions when someone’s barely breathing?”