NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – First responders are on the front lines of the overdose crisis seen across the country and here in Tennessee.

A program focused on their role in the fight to save lives is now expanding in Middle Tennessee thanks to a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, 3,814 Tennesseans died of a drug overdose in 2021, representing a 26% increase from 2020.

“Through our TN Save A Life program, where we have peers who are in recovery out doing trainings, education, help inform the risks of fentanyl, distributing Naloxone to individuals who are at a high risk of overdose, (we asked) how do we provide support to our first responders who are dealing with this stuff firsthand, every single day,” said Anthony Jackson, Jr., Director of Prevention in the Division of Substance Abuse Services at TDMHSAS.

The Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services created the First Responder Resource Engagement Specialty Team (FR-REST). They take naloxone training and distribution efforts and targeted first responders and law enforcement as the audience.

“As we think about our first responders and the jobs that they have, and how this overdose crisis really added another job to their job, let’s make sure we can educate and support and provide information to them, let’s make sure they are understanding what trends they may see anecdotally, let’s put some data behind them,” said Jackson.

First responders get naloxone to help reverse drug overdoses and they connect patients to addiction treatment.

“We’ve added fentanyl test strips as a tool and an effort to provide them to individuals who are using substances. What we’ve seen is research shows that if you’re able to test and be aware, a certain percentage will change their behavior, for us it’s about 84%,” said Jackson. “And that change of behavior can look like using less, not using at all, using with the Naloxone kind of run the gamut.”

The program adds more resources through care coordination and peer support provided by someone in recovery from substance use disorder.

“We’re working more directly with first responders and not just giving them naloxone for themselves or to give to administer but also to leave behind,” said Jackson. “So, a lot of it is empowering them.”

In its first year, the program trained more than 2,300 first responders and received nearly 600 referrals. After a pilot period started in 2020, it’s now expanded to more communities including major metro areas like Davidson County and smaller areas like Cheatham, Montgomery, and Robertson counties.

They’re also helping first responders cope with the stress of overdoses and the emotional toll it can take on their jobs.

“Let’s make sure we provide information with compassion fatigue, how that can prevent them from doing other pieces of their job and truthfully, how it impacts them professionally, personally, and making sure that they know that resources are available through our department, through the state, or even through their employer, how it can help them while at the same time supporting their work in the field and helping people who have been impacted by overdose,” Jackson explained.

The department is now setting up contracts with local non-profits to expand these services by hopefully early 2023.

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“What we’ve seen with this program is that law enforcement and first responders are excited and grateful to have a new tool in their toolbox. Pairing the power of peers to connect with people in active addiction and continued follow-up and care coordination not only gets people the help they need, it also gives the first responders the motivation and sense of satisfaction that they’re positively changing someone’s life,” stated TDMHSAS Commissioner Marie Williams, LCSW in a news release. “We’re excited to take this program to more parts of the state so we can continue to turn the tide of our state’s overdose epidemic.”

If you or someone you know needs a free, confidential referral to addiction treatment services, please call or text the Tennessee REDLINE at 800-889-9789.