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'These People Didn't Have a Longing to Become Addicted': What the Addiction Crisis Looks Like to First Responders

A night on the job with Newark Assistant Fire Chief David Decker.
David Decker.

David Decker takes a holistic view of the problems facing his city. The addiction crisis, he says, is largely a poverty problem.

Read our year-long investigation into the addiction crisis plaguing Rust Belt America.

It's 8:30 p.m. in November and Newark Assistant Fire Chief David Decker sits at his desk, doing paperwork. Suddenly, a red light flashes in the hallway; a voice comes over the intercom indicating an EMT emergency run. A possible drug overdose. Within seconds, Decker is in his department-issued SUV, racing through downtown Newark, Ohio, passing the county courthouse, lights flashing and siren wailing as he careens over the train tracks and down Main Street.

He's the first to arrive at the house. When he enters, he finds a woman lying motionless on the floor, anxious kids circled around her. Spotting the woman's partner in the house, Decker shouts to him: "Can you get these kids upstairs? They don't need to see this."

Decker deftly administers Narcan, an overdose-reversing medicine, and soon the woman comes to. An EMT transports her to the nearby hospital.

And so David Decker drives back to the firehouse and sits back down at his desk. And soon enough the red light blinks again. It's the same address. The same emergency. He races back over. This time it was the woman's partner—the man he'd just seen.

There is, Decker assures me, nothing irregular about tonight.

Newark, like many other cities in the state, has fallen victim in recent years to the scourge of opioidspills, heroinfentanyl. In 2016 there were 18 overdose deaths in Newark. One year later, that number shot up to 41. Most of those deaths, Decker says, are a result of opioids.

"In my first 15 or 20 years of service, I bet I didn't administer Narcan no more than a dozen times," says Decker, who's now in his 27th year as a firefighter. "In the last two-and-a-half or three years we've probably given 100 doses of Narcan on runs I've been on."

Decker takes a holistic view of the problems facing his city. The addiction crisis, he says, is largely a poverty problem. And because it's mainly the poor who are overdosing, no one seems to care.

"Do you see any rich politician's kids dying of a heroin overdose?" he asks. In fact, some politicians have dealt with personal tragedy of their own, though research confirms that the overdose crisis has indeed hit low-income communities harder: A 2017 report from researchers at Ohio State University found that "an Ohio county's unemployment rate in 2010 is positively correlated with overdose deaths in 2015.... Counties with a higher poverty rate have a higher overdose rate."

Decker's firehouse services some economically challenged neighborhoods, so it's not hard to find the source of his perspective. This also happens to be the part of town where Decker grew up.

Decker's flat tone and no-nonsense demeanor is almost cliché first-responder, but beneath that exterior lies a man who cares deeply, and who finds himself frustrated often. He struggles to understand why people judge users, why people would call for a limit on the use of naloxone, or become frustrated by repeated calls to the same house for the same person.

"Some of the patients that we bring up are remorseful. Even tearful and ashamed," Decker says. "I'm guessing all these people didn't have a longing to become addicted to anything."

In many ways, the overdose crisis is magnifying deeper issues for non-users as well. In Newark, as elsewhere, there's a growing sense that the pressures of being a first responder are causing mental stress and post-traumatic syndrome. And the county social services is struggling to keep up. In January of 2017 there were 366 children in foster care; right now there are 521—the overwhelming majority of new entrants coming from homes plagued by substance abuse.

For his own part, Decker and his wife decided to foster a child. One less kid, they figured, left bouncing around a congested foster care system.

"We talked about how overwhelmed the system was because of the drug crisis," Decker says. His own intervention in his foster child's life has convinced Decker that what's really needed to address the addiction crises is better support for social service agencies and for struggling families.

Our conversation is interrupted once more when an enormous flat-screen panel, situated in the middle of the fire station's common area, starts blinking red. He calmly but swiftly throws his jacket back over his shoulders and heads for the SUV.

Read our year-long investigation into the addiction crisis plaguing Rust Belt America.