Alderman proposes to abolish Manchester Safe Station

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Former Mayor Ted Gatsas, right, fast-tracked Safe Station back in 2016 as an innovative response by Manchester Fire Department to reduce the number of overdose calls. Since then the program has been replicated in some fashion in 50 communities around the U.S. File Photo/Ryan Lessard

MANCHESTER, NH – Ward 7 Alderman Ross Terrio wants to eliminate the Manchester Safe Station program, and is set to present the broad strokes of his proposal to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen at Tuesday night’s meeting. The fire chief and firefighters union oppose the idea.

Terrio told Manchester Ink Link Tuesday that the work done by Safe Station today can be done more efficiently and effectively by the Greater Manchester Doorway program, which is operated by Catholic Medical Center.

“Right now, there’s a lot of overlap and redundancy,” Terrio said.

He said it’s costing the city resources and firemen are spread thin and overworked in part because of the program. And he believes patients aren’t being well-served because it’s a revolving door for repeat individuals.

“I think that’s part of my frustration. We’re spending all this money, time and resources and it’s not working, in many cases,” said Terrio. He is employed by Catholic Medical Center as a pharmacist and said he would not benefit financially in any way by his proposal to shift Safe Station operations to the Doorway.

The Safe Station program, which launched in 2016 and has since been replicated in over 50 communities nationwide, according to Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan, accepts individuals seeking treatment services for substance use disorder at all hours and at each firehouse in the city. 

Since the inception of the statewide Doorway program at the start of 2019, Safe Station has provided initial medical screenings and delivered people to Doorways during their daytime, weekday operating hours. During off-hours, they send patients to respite care facilities, and people in medical distress are transported by American Medical Response to a local hospital emergency department, according to Goonan.

Alderman Ross Terrio, who represents Ward 7, says it’s time to do away with Safe Station. File Photo/Andrew Sylvia

“We are directly tied to the Doorway system, including Farnum Center, GateHouse respite (in Nashua) and Granite Recovery Center in Effingham,” Goonan said.

Terrio said he wants to replicate what is now being done in Nashua following the Nashua Fire Department’s decision to end its Safe Station program this summer, in the hopes that the Manchester Doorway program will be able to provide 24/7 coverage by partnering with another organization.

Southern NH Health took over the Nashua Doorway program in May, after the state terminated its contract with Granite Pathways. The Nashua Safe Station program ended about a month later. Aside from 211 for off-hours support, there has not been a consistent brick-and-mortar program for overnight and weekend coverage until this month, when Southern announced a partnership with GateHouse Recovery Solutions to provide respite beds.

Terrio said he has spoken with a number of “rank-and-file” firefighters and he said all save for a couple higher ranking officers tell him they don’t like Safe Station.

“I haven’t found any that support the program,” Terrio said. “Because they have to deal with it.”

Goonan said he’s upset that Terrio didn’t bother to reach out to him directly and instead went behind his back to talk to firefighters, and surprised that he called the firefighters union asking for their support of his plan to eliminate Safe Station.

“I don’t know who he’s talking to but I think when he talked to my union, they were very taken aback by that,” Goonan said.

Union leaders Brian Paquette, Chad Gamache and Joseph Michael sent an email to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen Tuesday afternoon stating the union’s support for Safe Station.

First Lady Melania Trump, left, with Chief Dan Goonan, center, and U.S. drug czar Jim Carroll visited Manchester’s Safe Station on Sept. 17, 2020. File Photo

“The Manchester Professional Firefighters Association Local 856 does in fact support the Safe Station program and views it as a service to our community. We are in the business of helping people and making a difference, and treat this program no differently than any other EMS call for service,” the email states.

Goonan echoed this, saying firefighters are available to treat any medical emergency at a firehouse at any time. Accepting addicts seeking treatment is just like any medical call, he said.

He said such a service is worked into the department budget and does not cost the city anything extra. Even Lyft transportation to overnight respite centers is paid for by the Doorway program, Goonan said.

A new state grant-funded community resource unit known as Squad One serves as a mobile Safe Station, providing education, connecting people with treatment and performing street medicine, Goonan said. 

As a result, he said the department has seen a 50 percent reduction in the number of walk-ins over the last three months, which reduces the out-of-service time for fire trucks. 

Manchester Fire Department Chief Dan Goonan. File Photo/Andrew Sylvia

Goonan also said there was sufficient manpower in the department, with 47 active duty first responders available during any given shift.

“As far as manpower goes, we’re at an OK spot,” Goonan said.

In an email, Mayor Joyce Craig’s office told Ink Link: “The Mayor supports increasing access to treatment, and a 24/7 access point so individuals in crisis can receive help at any time.” It’s unclear what support Terrio may have on the board, but he suspects the positions likely fall on partisan lines, with fellow Republicans supporting the idea, and Democrats opposed, based on what he’s observed.

City aldermen are elected in nonpartisan municipal elections, although factions exist and currently, democrats outnumber republicans. 

At a recent meeting, Terrio motioned to begin studying the phasing out of Safe Station in the Public Safety Committee, which usually meets on the first Tuesday of every month.

He said he sees this as a long-term process and hopes to come up with a plan that phases out Safe Station by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2021.