Opioids and the Fire Service

Regardless of income, race, gender, education, or other demographics, America’s opiate problem has morphed into a full-blown public health crisis.

December 28, 2020

Article highlights

In recent years, the opioid epidemic has exploded across the country, decimating families and communities in its wake. Regardless of income, race, gender, education, or other demographics, America’s opiate problem has morphed into a full-blown public health crisis.

Take a look at these statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • From 1999-2017, nearly 400,000 people died from an overdose involving opioids, including both prescription opioids (such as oxycodone) and illegal opioids (such as heroin and fentanyl)
  • Around 68% of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid
  • In 2017, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids was 6 times higher than in 1999
  • On average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose

To put it into perspective, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters, “Overdose now surpasses car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. In 2014, opioid overdose deaths occurred at an average rate of 1 every 17 minutes.”

And its large-scale cost is significant, with some estimates putting the social and economic costs at over $1 trillion dollars and a projected cost of $500 billion more by 2020.

Are Opioids a Fire Problem?

Absolutely yes, opioids and the fire service are not only intertwined but problematic. The growing opioid epidemic is increasingly affecting fire departments on several fronts.

How? It impacts the types (and volume) of calls the fire service responds to and the dangers they encounter when they arrive on the scene, both of which stretch already limited resources even thinner.

Increase in EMS calls

According to one study, nearly 2/3s of all fire department responses are for medical aid.

This places an added strain on not only EMS personnel but department resources on the whole. The more the fire service responds to calls about opioids, the more their resources are spread thin.

The increase in opioid-related calls is flooding emergency departments and putting a huge strain on department resources.

According to the CDC, suspected opioid overdoses has increased by 30% in the U.S. just from July 2016 to September 2017.


Responding to an opioid-related emergency is very different and more complex than responding to other medical emergencies. It requires special care and more situational awareness than dealing with a typical overdose victim.

When firefighters come in contact with opioids (either through direct contact or secondary contamination), this creates a unique, and often unknown, risk for firefighters.

Why? Because many opioids can be ingested either by skin contact (namely fentanyl) or via inhalation, making it challenging to help the victim.

Firefighters must be properly trained on how to safely respond to these life-threatening emergencies in a way that both helps the victim and minimizes risk to their health and safety. Part of this is understanding how to administer naloxone (also known as Narcan), an effective countermeasure that blocks opioid receptors and can prevent imminent death.

What should firefighters do? The fear of accidental exposure and even overdose when responding to and treating an opioid-related call poses a real and serious health risk for firefighters.


Community decay

The desire to serve their community is at the heart of why many people choose to become firefighters and EMS personnel to begin with. They want to help, even if it means putting themselves in dangerous situations.

From a big-picture perspective, first responders love their communities and want them to thrive.

However, the more opioids infiltrate an area, the more blighted dwellings, the more crime, and the more risk accrues for the community and economy at large. An opioid crisis can also mean a strain on municipal budgets, which ultimately hurts the fire department.

In a nutshell, everyone suffers.

How SOPs/SOGs Help Keep Firefighters Safe

With the proper tools and information in hand, you can help firefighters stay safe and be more effective and efficient in how they work when responding to opioid calls.

It’s important to understand that the changing nature of the problem (opioids and the fire service) requires constant adjustment to tactics, procedures, and protocol.

This ensures firefighters are not addressing this problem with outdated or insufficient information, but instead tackling 21st-century issues with up-to-the-minute data and cutting-edge tools.

Up-to-date information, risks, and tactics

Because the risks and threats are constantly changing regarding opioids and the fire service, how you respond also needs to change.

A future-focused approach means keeping up-to-date with the current information, risks, and tactics. Being able to equip firefighters with proper decontamination protocols, medical orders, and information about tools (like Narcan) helps keep them safe when responding to opioid calls.

A great starting place? Keeping your Standard Operating Procedures/Guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) current with the latest strategies, tactics, and best practices. This ensures your firefighters are properly equipped to respond to any emergency, not just opioid calls.

By providing these first responders with the most current information, you are not only improving communication, but you are also reducing risk. The best way to do this?

Using a cloud-based document management software to handle high-value information such as safety protocols, technical guidelines, medical references, and SOPs/SOGs. Think of it as a digital bulletin board, with all your critical content stored in one central location and easily accessible online – even at the emergency scene.

Working with other departments

The information provided to the firefighters should not just focus on the steps to respond in an opioid-related emergency, but also how to help improve the overall community. You should communicate key information about partnering with other departments who are also working to improve the opioid problem in your area.

Are there services you can provide or resources you can recommend to those you help serve? Are there other programs you can engage with to help reduce the opioid problem in your area? If so, are your frontline firefighters even aware of these services, resources, and partnerships?

Such partnerships should be formalized within your department, not just something discussed informally.

Also, there should be specific processes and trusted partners firefighters can use to help those affected by opioids – not just those using the drug, but family members or friends living with them who might also need help.


Along with proper equipment, effective training is the primary area where firefighters can do something about the opioid issue.

For example, training should clearly spell out what firefighters should do if they encounter or are exposed to opioids, particularly the stronger ones like fentanyl. Training should also explain how firefighters must safely decontaminate all of their gear if they come into contact with fentanyl or other opiates.

The SOPs/SOGs should work hand-in-hand with that critical training to make sure the documents and information realistically reflect the opioid-response training. Whether you are specifically outlining specific protective gear to wear (such as N100 mask for respiratory protection and safety goggles) or providing post-event wash-down instructions, your training needs to go deep.


If you train to your SOPs/SOGs, you ensure accurate, consistent information in a real-world setting. This can literally prove to be a life-saving measure for everyone involved at the emergency scene.

Often, it helps to have visual content to accompany text or audio training, especially when demonstrating a step-by-step, hands-on procedure. Some quick, online videos that show how to respond to different situations or how to perform various procedures can help increase the firefighters’ awareness and ability to handle those situations safely and effectively.

The bottom line – the opioids and fire service connection is a 21st-century problem and you need a 21st-century solution.

The threats and risks are changing too rapidly to rely on out-of-date or inaccessible information. You need a modern solution to keep your firefighters informed, up-to-date, and ready to respond.

You might want to consider PowerDMS, a cloud-based policy management software. Not only can it help organize your fire department’s information and keep it updated, but it can also provide an efficient, effective delivery method.

This ensures firefighters see and understand the information (through our online training module) and are then able to properly put it into practice.

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