GRAND FORKS - Grants are helping law enforcement agencies in Grand Forks and Polk counties equip their officers with a medicine that can be used to prevent opioid overdose deaths.
UND Police recently were trained to handle Narcan, a nasal spray version of naloxone used to fight the effects of opioid drugs such as fentanyl. The university law enforcement agency equipped its officers with the medication in early January, thanks to grant funding from Grand Forks Public Health, said UND Police Lt. Danny Weigel.
"We don't see a ton of (overdoses)," Weigel said. "Any time you can save somebody's life, that's very important. I think that goes without saying that that's what we are here for."
The Grand Forks Police Department started training its officers last week so they can carry the medication, GFPD Lt. Derik Zimmel said. Public Health has provided the department with the equipment needed for training, said Michael Dulitz, opiate response project coordinator with the city's health department.
East Grand Forks Police Chief Michael Hedlund said his force started carrying the nasal spray in December. The department also received a grant to cover its costs, Hedlund said.
The effort to equip officers across the nation is in response to what some have called an opioid overdose crisis. Drug dealers have found a market in selling fentanyl, which has been used to treat pain in small doses. More than 42,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2016 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overdose deaths in the Red River Valley have prompted several investigations, including an international operation stemming from a Grand Forks death in January 2015 that netted multiple suspects.
The problem isn't exclusive to Grand Forks, Zimmel said. The GFPD responded to 28 overdoses in 2016, three of which resulted in death.
Those numbers increased slightly in 2017 to 32 responses and four fatalities, Zimmel said.
"It's not a problem that is going away," he said. "Because of that, we need to alter our response to it."
The initial equipping of officers with Narcan is expensive, Dulitz said. A kit costs $36, Zimmel said, and they must have cases that can fight extremely cold temperatures.
That's why public health is using some of the $180,000 it received in federal funding to equip and train officers, Dulitz said.
"Twenty percent of it goes toward prevention," he said. "We've just been approaching law enforcement agencies as (grants) become available."
Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost said he is in talks with the Grand Forks Health Department about equipping his officers with Narcan.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office has had Narcan for about two years, Sheriff Barb Erdman said. It secured grants through the Minnesota Department of Health, meaning deputies have the nasal spray on hand at no cost to the agency.
Polk County deputies haven't had to use Narcan often, but having it on hand could save a life when seconds matter, Erdman said. Emergency medical staff can treat an overdose and sometimes get on the scene first, but an officer may be closer to the victim and treat them faster instead of waiting for an ambulance, she said.
"The other side of it that is equally important is if a law enforcement officer gets exposed to it, we have that with us to be able to save a peace officer from going down," she said. "You just don't know what you are going to come across under what circumstances."
Hedlund said Altru Ambulance often responds quickly to overdoses.
"Even on the best days, depending on when we should happen to find that person in the state they are in, you might not have a couple of minutes," he said. "Sometimes the officers' ability to administer naloxone or Narcan as quickly as possible could make a difference."
Situations and expectations evolve over time, Zimmel said, adding consideration of officer safety, funding accessibility and demand for tools needed to fight overdoses play a role in deciding whether to carry Narcan.