Portland Overdose Response Team Eases Firefighters' Load Amid Drug Crisis

Portland Overdose Response Team Eases Firefighters' Load Amid Drug CrisisSource: Portland Fire & Rescue
Amina Rashid
Published on February 12, 2024

Answering the city's spiraling overdose calls, Portland Fire & Rescue has switched gears by deploying a dedicated two-person overdose response team to relieve its overworked firefighters. As the evening rain intensified on a recent Thursday, the pioneer team comprising a paramedic and an EMT patrolled the downtown streets of Portland, on the lookout for individuals potentially in the throes of an overdose. According to KGW, the team is a vital strand of a pilot project, launched about a month ago and operates four days a week during ten-hour shifts. Paramedic Justin DeJesus, a member of the new team, mentioned that having a dedicated team focusing on overdoses is "what the city needs in a more appropriate resource."

Previously burdened by the sheer volume of overdose emergencies, firefighters at Station 1 can now breathe easier, as the CHAT-1 Team assumes most overdose call responsibilities. Having serviced almost a third of the city's overdose calls last year, the impact of the program is tangible in the downtown core. On Jan. 16, the Community Health Assess & Treat Unit—nicknamed the CHAT-1 Team—came to light, with a primary focus on overdose calls. This program has offered a much-needed buffer for emergency services, as KOIN 6 News reports that the CHAT Paramedic Justin DeJesus stated, "We’ve been going out and catching all kinds of overdoses and saving people literally."

The overdose crisis had pushed American Medical Response (AMR), Portland's ambulance service provider, to its limits. Frequent mentions describe scenarios where AMR was at "level zero," indicating no units available to respond to new calls. However, with the establishment of the overdose response team, a significant positive turnaround has been observed. Lt. Bill Schimel conveyed that the deployment of the CHAT-1 Team has been like "people working on a plan and putting it in action," thus making a considerable difference for their crew, as chronicled by KPTV.

The effectiveness of this initiative has not gone unnoticed. While the pilot is still in its infancy, officials at Portland Fire & Rescue feel that it has already become a 'relief' for their high number of emergency calls. The strategically placed team in downtown Portland, a locus for the drug crisis, quickly addresses overdose incidents, taking the pressure off firefighters who until recently have been inundated with such calls. Not only does this team answer overdose calls, but they also handle other low-acuity calls, further lightening the load for Portland's firefighters.