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Hanscom defenders target opioid overdoses

Staff Sergeant Matthew Pick, 66th Security Forces Squadron, holds a nasal applicator and naloxone medication vial.

Staff Sergeant Matthew Pick, 66th Security Forces Squadron, holds a nasal applicator and naloxone medication vial, designed to temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose Dec. 11 at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. Hanscom is the first U.S. Air Force installation to issue the drug to law enforcement personnel under permission of the base commander. (U.S. Air Force photo by Mark Herlihy)

Staff Sgt. Matthew Pick, 66th Security Forces Squadron, equips himself with one of five opioid overdose medications.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Pick, 66th Security Forces Squadron, equips himself with one of five opioid overdose medications, designed to temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, at the SFS armory, Dec. 11, at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. Pick attended training on the use and application of the drug, which is with two SFS Airmen in the field at all times. (U.S. Air Force photo by Mark Herlihy)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- Investigator Brandon Johnson, a member of the 66th Security Forces Squadron here, defended a base in California with a woman for nearly four years before she separated from the Air Force, moved to her hometown, and died of an illegal opioid overdose. That was three years ago.

“I definitely think naloxone, if it was accessible at the right time, could have saved her life,” said Johnson, referring to a now over-the-counter drug capable of reversing the effects of opioid overdoses.

Johnson led an effort to certify his fellow Airmen to carry the treatment, working with a local hospital to create computer-based and in-person training, enabling military law enforcement Airmen to save lives. Of 119 Hanscom defenders, 55 are certified. SFS Commander Maj. Brett Skates believes his Airmen were the only defenders in the Air Force carrying the drug when the effort began in early 2017. 

“We began this process in mid-2016,” said Skates. “We were the first base to do this and we’re currently carrying the overdose drug under approval from our base commander.”

At the Security Forces armory on base, where defenders are issued firearms, ammo and much of their tactical gear, armory Airmen hand shift leaders and patrolmen who will be out in the field for 8-12 hours the small nasal spray bottles containing opioid overdose medication.

In 2016, Hanscom purchased five doses from Emerson Hospital, less than ten miles from the base, in Concord, Massachusetts. The drug is useable for approximately 24 months, and two on-duty Security Forces Airmen have it at all times.

"This is, for us, about saving a life," said Johnson. "We want people here on base and the community to know that, if you come to us with symptoms, our first priority will always be the safety of the person we're treating. If we administer naloxone to you, the first place you're going is the hospital, not jail. We're here to help."

Johnson’s words echo a shift in sentiment in the law enforcement community in Massachusetts, where in 2014, deaths from opioid overdoses doubled the national average. Opioid-related deaths have only increased since. Massachusetts requires first responders to carry overdose treatments, and encourages treatment over punishment for those with addiction issues who are not in violation of other enforceable laws. Pharmacies may dispense overdose treatments over the counter, with the express purpose of customers administering the drug to others, and there is a state law preventing punishment of bystanders who respond to overdoses.

“We’re a unique base, in that our on-base housing includes not just every active duty service, but civilian employees, retirees and a wide range of people,” said Johnson. “Once you’re on base, you’re under our protection. Overdoses can happen for a lot of reasons, even by accident with prescribed, legal medications. They can impact infants and even pets, who just happen across a high dose. It doesn’t matter why, or how you overdose, we can help.”

First responders administer naloxone via the respiratory system to those exhibiting opioid overdose symptoms. One of the symptoms is irregular, or stopped breathing. The first step is to begin emergency breathing techniques, then administer the drug by placing the spray device in the nose, and next continuing simulated breathing, so the body can absorb the drug. Chemicals in the spray then replace opiate in receptors in the brain, ending or delaying the shutdown of critical functions like breathing and heartbeat. By state law, every overdose victim must be transported to a hospital immediately, regardless of their condition after being revived, because the overdose-countering effects can wear off in less than an hour.