MANCHESTER, NH — Inside 100 Merrimack Street at the headquarters of Manchester’s fire department, two lonely blue chairs sit next to a glass door looking out onto the city. A variety of materials sit on a nearby table and cupboard close to the chairs: two red biohazard containers for soiled needles and other paraphernalia, a can of aerosol spray, an empty clipboard, a container of sanitary wipes, and other assorted items. Various posters are tacked onto a bulletin board, many of which talk about supporting services for drug addiction issues. A small, almost overlooked “no smoking” sign hangs over the two empty chairs, a not-so-subtle reminder of the danger of smoking indoors. Inside the cupboard can be found all manner of paperwork.
A row of large red firetrucks are lined up a short distance away from the chairs. Enormous garage doors may be opened or closed depending on the time of day. Anyone who cares to wait long enough at the station can hear an announcement on the PA system about a call-out to a nearby address. Shortly after this is heard, firefighters will mobilize out to the named address. While at times the station can take on an idyllic, relaxed feeling, at any moment the dedicated firefighters of Manchester are ready to go to work.
They are also ready, at any time of day or night as long as the fire station is open, for people to come in and sit on the chairs. If they do, such people will have visited Safe Station, a much talked about yet little understood service that the fire department provides. The most difficult part of Safe Station is walking through the door, which requires participants to admit they might have a problem.
It is meant for people struggling with drug addiction. There is no limit to how often they might come or any restrictions on the time of day they might come. People from all walks of life have been known to visit Safe Station. Those who are poor, those who are financially secure, men, women, old people, young people — the firefighters have seen them all. While public perception might be that the drug problem lies primarily with the city’s homeless population, the reality is somewhat different. There is no one particular demographic which struggles with drug use and abuse. The epidemic, such as it is, can affect anyone.
Safe Station was set up to help people dealing with addiction gain more reliable access to services. Once people arrive there, they typically spend around ten minutes until a taxi or Lyft ride comes to take them to their next destination, which could be Granite Pathways or the Farnum Center, depending on the time of day. On the whole, the firefighters of the city have seen over 6,500 people come to Safe Station since the program was started on May 4, 2016. Since then, only one person has presented a physically dangerous situation that would require police to be called. Otherwise, police just aren’t involved in the process.
No one is afraid of a firefighter, especially not Chris Hickey, 41, who has worked as a firefighter and paramedic for 20 years. His current job as Fire Dept EMS Officer is his dream job. From an early age, Chris imagined that he would be a firefighter. Not only has his dream been achieved; he’s exceptionally good at what he does.
Outwardly, he looks like an all-pro fullback. With his big hands and large frame, he appears to be a man who could plow over linebackers on a regular basis every Sunday. His overt strength is matched by a friendly, affable demeanor. He has a ready smile and a compassionate heart. Like most firefighters, he doesn’t wait around to solve problems. When a situation arises, he’s the first to stand up and do something about it.
He, like the majority of his fellow firefighters, have been known to get into a fire engine so that he might report to an overdose. A fire truck will appear at the site of an overdose because each firefighter is also trained as an EMT. There are ten fire stations throughout Manchester, each of them having a similar Safe Station, compared with one ambulance dispatch center. Firefighters can arrive earlier than an ambulance can by a few minutes and administer emergency medical care at once. This can make all the difference when someone needs services immediately.
Contrary to all expectations, none of the Safe Stations in Manchester incur any additional cost from the city budget. None of the firefighters involved have to take overtime to make the Safe Stations work. The Stations are, after all, just sets of chairs in a corner where people wait for a short time until they’re taken someone else. They are largely volunteer efforts done out of compassion.
Hickey is the original author of Safe Station, based on an idea he had to find a way to reduce the number of response calls to overdoses. What if there were a way to get to someone before they overdosed?
According to HIckey, “Someone had to do something.”
During the three years of Safe Stations operating in Manchester, the number of people using them has decreased. While Chris hopes this is due to a reduced number of people struggling with addiction, he isn’t sure whether the reduced numbers have to do with an increased availability of Narcan.
Narcan is the brand name of a chemical called Naloxone. Once given, the effects are felt from two to five minutes, depending on how it is administered. Narcan can be injected into a patient’s muscle, or inhaled through the nose. While there are negative side effects with people who have heart problems, Narcan has shown to be safe for pregnant women among a small select sample group. Narcan works by shutting down the body’s receptors to opioids and endorphins. When applied effectively, the body no longer reacts to any opioids which may have been consumed. Acute overdoses, as a result, are alleviated.
While Narcan itself has a reputation of being a go-to drug during an opioid overdose, Chris Hickey and other firefighters like him want to remove the public stigma from drug addiction. Safe Station serves this function, while expanding the capabilities of Manchester’s fire departments in general. Each Safe Station is a positive zone where people aren’t judged or talked down to. They aren’t charged for their time, either. Anyone who is uninsured or underinsured can expect to meet a caseworker at their next destination to help them sign up for insurance.
The fire station itself is a calm, orderly place where everyone is welcoming and friendly. The firefighters there are incredibly dedicated and competent. They stand ready to face any challenge the day might bring with patience and understanding. The lives they save seem innumerable. Whoever happens to come to them is in good hands, especially those who come to Safe Station.
Winter Trabex is a freelance writer and creator from Manchester.