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We must protect the heroes on the front lines in our communities

The Hill logo The Hill 10/28/2021 Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), opinion contributor
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As a former prosecutor and the proud husband of a nurse, I have seen firsthand how law enforcement officers and first responders risk their lives every day to protect their communities. Over the past year and a half, the rest of America saw that too, as these local heroes continued to work day-in and day-out as the pandemic raged, selflessly risking exposure to COVID-19 for both themselves and their loved ones.

The reality is that emergency responders face a myriad of threats on the job. However, there's one in particular that most are not well-equipped to deal with: exposure to illicit drugs and other hazardous materials.

First responders and law enforcement officers are often the first on the scene when someone is experiencing an overdose. Without adequate equipment and training, those encounters can be both dangerous and tragic. These brave public servants are at risk of exposure to dangerous narcotics and other deadly substances through inhalation, contact with needles, mucous membrane or skin contact, and ingestion.

Over the years, far too many of our police officers and first responders have been exposed to lethal substances while responding to emergency calls. In 2017 alone, there were over 150 media reports on first responder exposures to various opioids. More often than not, they are coming into contact with the lethal synthetic opioid fentanyl.

In May 2017, Patrolman Chris Green came into contact with fentanyl during a traffic stop in East Liverpool, Ohio. He collapsed not long after returning to the police station. In order to revive him, paramedics had to administer a dose of naloxone at the station and three more doses at the hospital.

In 2020, two California Highway Patrol officers and a member of the San Francisco Fire Department were hospitalized after a car crash on the Golden Gate Bridge exposed them to fentanyl.

In April of this year, two sheriff's deputies were hospitalized in Caldwell, Idaho, after they were exposed to fentanyl while booking an inmate. And just last month, an EMS responder in Greeneville, Tenn., was rushed to the hospital after an opioid exposure while responding to an overdose involving heroin laced with fentanyl.

The harrowing stories of these local heroes is why I introduced the Protecting First Responders from Secondary Exposure Act with Rep. David Trone (D-Md.).

Our bipartisan bill aims to help state and local governments purchase containment devices for their first responders and police officers, and to provide trainings on how to use them.

Containment devices help prevent exposure to lethal powders, as well as unknown chemical substances first responders and police officers seize or otherwise encounter. They not only help protect them from exposure to fentanyl, anthrax and other dangerous substances, but also better preserve these substances as evidence for forensic analysis which improves the efficacy of investigations.

With our nation staring down the barrel of a record-breaking surge in opioid overdoses and historic amounts of fentanyl flowing across our southern border and into our communities, the harsh reality is that our first responders and law enforcement officers need more support than ever before.

Last year, 69,710 of the 93,331 overdose deaths recorded in the United States involved opioids. That staggering number nearly eclipsed the total of fatal overdoses that occurred in 2019 (72,151).

These statistics and the losses they represent are heartbreaking - all of us have loved ones, friends or neighbors who have been impacted.

Thankfully, despite facing increased challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, first responders and police officers across the country continue to serve on the front lines of the opioid crisis in their communities, delivering life-saving care and getting these dangerous drugs off the streets.

It's not enough for us to simply thank these brave men and women for all that they do. We must remain committed to providing them with the equipment and training necessary to safely do their jobs.

Joyce represents Ohio's 14th District.

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