The Fentanyl Safety Guide: This Information Can Save Your Life

There has been an alarming increase in fentanyl overdoses across the United States. With the increase in fentanyl use across the country, our first responders are encountering dangerous cases of fentanyl exposure. Most first responders have no idea how to protect themselves from fentanyl exposure or how to implement fentanyl safety. If you want more information on the hazards of fentanyl, check out my article on its hazards here. First lets look at real world examples of officers having adverse reactions while on scene of a fentanyl related incident.

First Responders Falling Ill From Fentanyl: Real Examples About Fentanyl Safety

The most recent incident happened just this week in East Liverpool, Ohio. Officer Green had searched a vehicle that he suspected had just been involved in a drug deal. Officer Green had worn latex gloves and a mask while searching the car. When he was back at the station, a colleague noticed that Officer Green had a white powder on his uniform. Officer Green brushed off the powder, but collapsed a short time later. EMS was called and four doses of Naloxone were delivered. He told local newspaper The Morning Journal: “I started talking weird. I slowly felt my body shutting down. “I could hear them talking, but I couldn’t respond. I was in total shock. ‘No way I’m overdosing,’ I thought.”

Fentanyl Safety Training for Law Enforcement
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A few months ago in Northern California, officers responding to a man down call were exposed to some type of synthetic opiate. The officers had been dispatched to a man passed out behind the wheel of a car. They arrived quickly and found the suspect unresponsive and with slow and shallow breathing. The officers tried to rouse him without success. The officers located a container with suspected heroin as well as several opiate pills that appeared to be common pharmaceutical schedule II drugs. After opening the container, the officers became light-headed, dizzy, and had jitters and shortness of breath. These are symptoms of fentanyl exposure.

In September 2016, an 11-man SWAT team entering a house in Hartford, Connecticut were exposed to fentanyl after the drug became airborne. The team had no prior knowledge the suspects  had fentanyl in the home. When the SWAT team entered the house, the suspects were repacking the drug for sale. For some undetermined reason the fentanyl became airborne during the raid. The 11 officers walked through a cloud of  fentanyl and within a short time began developing symptoms.  The symptoms included dizziness, headaches, nausea and  sore throats. The entire team was taken to the hospital for observations and all recovered from the exposure.

Lastly, in Atlantic County, New Jersey, Detective Dan Kallen and colleagues were searching a home in August  2016when they found a box full of drug paraphernalia, along with a bag of white powder. Kallen and Detective Eric Price opened the bag and performed a field test to determine what it was. A small amount became airborne as Kallen closed up the bag, he said. Suddenly, both detectives became ill. “It hit us like a ton of bricks,” Kallen, 40, said. “It became very difficult to breathe. Our hearts were racing. We were nauseous, close to blacking out. “I felt like, ‘Holy crap, I’m going to die right now,'” Kallen said.

Fentanyl Exposure Safety- Minor Possession Cases

Possession cases will make up a majority of cases that the average first responder will deal with. These are the cases where someone overdoses, is on the nod in a park, or you are conducting proactive patrol and pat search a potential abuser. If you determine there is a risk of fentanyl being present, you’ll need an N-95 mask to protect yourself from fentanyl going airborne, nitrile gloves to protect your hands and something to cover your upper torso. A Gortex jacket is an excellent barrier and can be easily decontaminated. It’s a bonus if your jacket is dark colored so you can see the light colored fentanyl if it lands on your jacket. If a Gortex jacket isn’t available, some type of Tyvek garment would be perfect.

Fentanyl Exposure Safety- Street Sales Cases

These types of incidents are moderate risk. Moderate risk cases will most likely be encountered by law enforcement, however EMS may encounter these types of cases at the occasional overdose. In cases such as these, you will need a little more protection. It is advisable to set up ICS, have decontamination set up by a hazmat team and have a dedicated safety officer. Here, you should have an N95 mask like before, but I would advise to use a full face respirator with an N95 filter. Officers can use their department issued gas mask if it has a CBRN cannister. You should have a Tyvek suit with double nitrile gloves to protect your hands, as well as chemical resistant boots. You will also need to tape all of the seems (boots and gloves) to prevent particles from entering the suit. Essentially, you will use the same protocols you would use at a drug lab in fentanyl sales cases. Why would you do this? This photo is an excellent indicator of the amount of fentanyl it would take to kill you.

Fentanyl Exposure Safety- Labs/Bulk Sales Cases

This is an extremely rare case for first responders. However, it is not uncommon, like the Hartford case listed above, in some drug search warrants to run across a case like this inadvertently. Lab cases should only be handled by properly trained lab teams. If you find yourself in a fentanyl lab, leave immediately. Do not stay inside. Set up a perimeter, call your suspects out and call for a qualified lab team. Just after giving a webinar on fentanyl safety, officers from a state university who had attended the webinar ran across a student high on fentanyl in his dorm room. The officers realized there was a large amount of fentanyl in the dorm room and left immediately as they were trained. A lab team responded and processed the scene. This is exactly what should have happened.

Fentanyl Level A PPE
A narcotics detective in California searches a car and finds 2 kilos of fentanyl hidden in the door. This level of protection for a search is needed to protect officers from death.

Bringing It All Together

Fentanyl exposure risks can be minimized with the right training and the right equipment. The days of being able to process drugs with just latex gloves is over. Times have changed and so have the dangers. Download our FREE Fentanyl Exposure Reference Guide and keep it on hand for your next fentanyl related incident. You can also contact me to provide training at your agency or take my online Fentanyl Exposure Prevention course.

Author: Keith Graves
Keith is a retired Police Sergeant and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for 29 years. Keith was named as California’s Narcotics Officer of the Year and is a prior winner of MADD’s California Hero Award. He has years of experience as a Narcotics Detective and a Narcotics Unit Supervisor and is a Drug Recognition Expert Instructor (IACP #3292). Keith teaches both the DRE course and the Drug Abuse Recognition Course and has taught at the Police Academy. He has developed several drug courses for the California Narcotics Officers Association, California POST and California Colleges and currently consults POST on drug investigation procedures. Keith has held other assignments besides narcotics including Training Sergeant, Patrol Sergeant, COPPS Officer, Traffic Officer, and 20 years as a SWAT Team member and Sniper Team Leader. Keith has taught thousands of officers and businesses around the world about drug use, drug trends, compliance training and drug investigations. He is recognized as an international drug expert and has testified as an expert in court proceedings on drug cases, homicide cases and rape prosecutions. Keith earned a BA in Business Management from Saint Mary's College of California and a MA in Criminal Justice. Keith is the Founder and President of Graves & Associates, a company dedicated to providing drug training to law enforcement and private industry.