Buffalo firefighters believe they have the exclusive right to administer Narcan, a lifesaving antidote to forestall the effects of heroin and prescription painkiller overdoses.
Buffalo police who have begun carrying the antidote argue that they have been given additional duties without a chance to negotiate the extra work their bosses say can save lives.
As a result, the city faces two separate charges filed with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board by the unions representing firefighters and police.
The charges stem from a policy decision Mayor Byron W. Brown and Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda implemented last month to train all 750 city police officers on how to administer Narcan to victims of overdoses. The drug is given through a nasal spray to people suspected of overdosing on opiates, buying them enough time to get to an emergency room for lifesaving treatment. About 50 Buffalo police officers have received the training.
Brown and Derenda took the action in response to the increasing epidemic of opiate addiction that is claiming many lives here and across the country.
But firefighters say it’s their job to act as first responders when it comes to medical emergencies.
“It is the exclusive work of members of the unit to be first responders to medical emergencies and provide care up to the level of their training. ... This exclusive work includes providing initial medical treatment to members of the public, which would include, if necessary, the administering of drugs such as Narcan,” the complaint filed by Local 282 of the Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association stated.
The Buffalo Police Benevolent Association declined to comment on its action against the city, but the firefighters union cited the police complaint in its documents to PERB alleging violations of civil service law:
“Upon information and belief, the Buffalo PBA filed a charge with PERB because the city has not bargained with the PBA regarding the unilateral assignment of police officers to perform non-bargaining unit work.
“The city has violated the act by unilaterally assigning exclusive bargaining work to non-bargaining members without bargaining with the Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association.”
But the Police Department says it intends to continue training the remaining 700 officers to carry the spray. “I believe that we will save a life with this initiative,” Derenda said Monday.
City spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge added, “At the end of the day, saving lives and public safety trumps everything else.”
In making a case that firefighters are best suited to provide first aid to individuals overdosing on opiates, Dan Cunningham, president of the firefighters union, said all of his union members are certified emergency medical technicians and annually answer thousands of calls requiring medical treatment.
“We have traditionally always taken care of any emergency medical call. We respond to anywhere in the city within four minutes, and the vast majority of the calls are for medical emergencies,” Cunningham said, explaining that firefighters are trained to make a rapid determination of the need for medical attention.
“We hope that the PERB hearing officer decides our way and that the city realizes that it is in the best interest of our citizens that the work should be performed by the Fire Department as part of our duties as first responders,” he said. A hearing date has not been scheduled.
A Police Department source objected to Cunningham’s arguments.
“So in other words, police are supposed to pull up to an overdose scene and say: ‘Tough luck, you have to wait for the firefighters to arrive because it is their exclusive work,’ ” the police source said.
Despite saying it is the exclusive work of firefighters, Cunningham said he would not object to the city allowing firefighters and police to administer the antidote, but he argued that firefighters show up at 99.9 percent of emergency scenes, whether it be a fire, car crash or other type of incident and frequently arrive before police.
“If the city wants to force the police, that is their fight,” Cunningham said. “We do not object to anything that helps the general safety of the public. We believe it is part of our job as first responders and emergency medical technicians.”
The police source said that if the firefighters union’s charge prevails, officers will not be able to carry Narcan.
North Buffalo resident Avi Israel, who founded the Save the Michaels Foundation after his son Michael in 2011 took his life after struggling with opiate painkiller addiction while being treated for Crohn’s disease, said he strongly supports any first responder being trained to use Narcan.
“I don’t have a problem with police having it, but when someone calls and says, ‘My kid is overdosing,’ I don’t want the Fire Department to show up and not be able to help the kid. The window for reversing an overdose is very small. If the police officer is not there, and the firefighter doesn’t have the antidote, we’ll have lost the kid,” Israel said.
He and a number of other parents who have lost children to such overdoses, Israel said, plan to attend a Common Council committee meeting this afternoon to urge Council members to continue their support for allowing firefighters to carry Narcan.
The Council last week approved Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto’s measure calling for firefighters to carry Narcan, but the matter was sent back to committee for further review. Firefighters union Vice President Thomas Barrett is also planning to address the committee.