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Volunteers needed to counsel those in throes of drug addiction

“Angels” are needed to help in the fight against the opioid and heroin epidemic.

These volunteers would be on call to show up at police stations and provide emotional support for individuals who have decided they can no longer live in their addiction and want a way out through treatment.

The work of the angels – part of a program known as Rapid Evaluation Appropriate Placement – would begin in about two months, once Erie County’s 24-hour crisis hotline for the epidemic is operating. While the angel and person in need wait at the station, hotline workers will arrange for admission to a treatment site.

County officials and police administrators from 13 different law enforcement agencies gathered Monday to say they hope about 100 volunteers will come forward. The main qualification for an angel is concern for the community. It is anticipated people in recovery from addiction and those who work in health care, social work and teaching will be among those who volunteer.

REAP is patterned after a Gloucester, Mass., initiative, which last year placed about 280 people in treatment, while at the same time the New England city experienced a 31 percent decrease in property crime attributed to fewer people stealing to support their drug habits.

“Volunteers would respond to a police station after an individual has come to the station for help,” said Daniel Rinaldo, a federal drug intelligence officer organizing the initiative here. “Angels would act as buffers between the hotline and the individual. They would help figure out if detox is needed or try and fit them into a rehab facility.”

“We don’t want to incarcerate people with a disease of the brain. Rather than incarceration, which is a Band-Aid, we’re getting them into care,” said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein, adding that another component of the program will involve hospital emergency departments. If someone is taken to an emergency room after overdosing and when stabilized is willing to enter drug treatment, hospital staff will call the crisis hotline seeking a placement.

And while a police station may seem like an unlikely place for an individual illegally using drugs to go for help, Rinaldo said the state’s Good Samaritan law would protect them from arrest.

When someone looking for help arrives at the station, a police officer will do the initial assessment. If the person appears “in danger,” Rinaldo said, he or she will be taken directly to a hospital.

Volunteers would be on call from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday. Outside those hours and days, if someone seeking help showed up at a station, a police officer would make the call to the drug hotline to get the treatment process started.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. thanked the police officials from the different law enforcement agencies for agreeing to participate in the program.

“In all of the police oaths, there are the words to ‘protect and serve’ and that job has never been more difficult,” Hochul said of the expanding role police are taking in overdose cases.

Those who want to volunteer as angels, he said, can go online to Erie.gov/health and click on “read more” above the “Opioid Epidemic Task Force REAP” heading. Volunteers must agree to a criminal and civil background check and sign a confidentiality pledge.

Money for the drug crisis hotline was unanimously approved by the County Legislature on April 14. The $375,000 expenditure, which will be contracted to Crisis Services of Buffalo, also includes salaries for two new jobs in the Health Department to handle additional work caused by the epidemic.

Participating police departments are Buffalo, Orchard Park, Amherst, Hamburg, the Town of Tonawanda, Evans, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Erie County Sheriff’s Office, Lancaster, Erie County Medical Center, Niagara Falls, East Aurora and Depew.

email: lmichel@buffnews.com