MANCHESTER, NH – Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan says critics of the city’s Safe Station policy should walk a mile in his firefighters boots before passing judgement on the program, which has in three months helped direct nearly 340 people to services and treatment for addiction.
Goonan was referring to an open letter posted Aug. 8 on Facebook by Jim Duckworth, president of Professional Firefighters of Concord NH – Local 1045. Duckworth calls the city’s Safe Station program a “feel good measure,” and then goes on to relay a recent incident in which a man high on methamphetamine entered a Concord fire station, leaving Duckworth and others feeling vulnerable.
“We saw it yesterday,” Goonan said Tuesday, of the social media missive. “What he wrote about has nothing to do with Safe Station. They don’t have a Safe Station program in Concord. What he described is something we deal with here every day. Apparently, in Concord, it’s new to them. But it’s not new to us. I have no idea why he brought Safe Station into the conversation. It sounds like they’re getting into our business when they shouldn’t.”
If the incident described by Duckworth had happened in Manchester, it would have been treated like any other encounter Manchester Fire has with someone in need of mental health or medical help, Goonan said.
Manchester Firefighters helped create the program, said Goonan, and there has been no push back from them about the city’s open door policy at fire stations.
“My firefighters have been totally supportive. In fact, I just had a conversation yesterday with Jeff Duval, President of Local 856 here, and asked him if he could reach out to our brother firefighter in Concord, union guy to union guy, and see if he’d like to come down and see how the program works,” Goonan said. “If he was going to write something like this and put it out there on social media, you think maybe he’d ask someone like Jeff first what our firefighters think of it before he criticizes.”
Goonan said Safe Station has brought out the best in his firefighters.
“They’re showing more dedication and compassion than you can imagine. Most of the people who come in are beat down. These people are ready for help – sure, maybe there are some gaming the system, who just want a bed for the night,” Goonan said. “We even get people from Concord here, due to the fact that they don’t have a program connecting people to services there. So you might say we’re picking up the slack here, and we’re not going to turn anyone away.”
Duckworth’s main point was that a man high on meth, paranoid and carrying a kitchen knife, could have turned on someone inside the fire station. But that doesn’t have anything to do with how the “safe station” policy works for those seeking help from heroin addiction, Goonan said.
“People walk into our stations every day, whether they’re having a mental health issue, or need a flat tire changed,” Goonan said. “In the case of someone high on meth, we would have called police or ambulance to help with the situation because, unfortunately, this is the world we’re living in. But that’s just part of the job nowadays.”
When Manchester fire stations around the city in May officially started an open-door policy for those seeking treatment, what it did was create a more efficient way of getting people into the recovery pipeline, Goonan said.
“There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, and thank God we have Tim Soucy of the Health Department, and other organizations like Serenity Place, Manchester Mental Health, Families in Transition, Farnum Center, the Willows, and HOPE for NH. This is a real crisis, and a community issue; I can’t fix it alone. Safe Station is just a small part of the solution. I’m just trying to stay in my lane and be a good access point. All we want is to make sure people are getting the help they need on the back end,” Goonan said.
Once someone asks for help they are guided to Serenity Place or another city agency with trained recovery coaches ready to help. They may not get a bed right away, but they will get a shot at treatment.
“If they weren’t coming to us, we’d be going to them,” Goonan said.
In his letter, Duckworth mentioned Concord Firefighters aren’t trained to deal with assaults, or how to deescalate situations involving people using meth or other drugs.
To that, Goonan says they should consider investing in MOAB (Management of Aggressive Behavior) training, as his staff has.
“All our guys have been through the training, but they also learn quickly on the job how to try and get these situations under control. We work extremely well with Manchester Police. You can’t pre-plan some of these situations,” Goonan said. “I can’t write an SOP [standard operating procedure] for everything. Situations are changing; they’re dynamic. We could have a guy coming in one day with a heart attack, or high on meth, or suffering from a horrible mental issue. That’s just the reality.”
Goonan said in the three months since Safe Station was launched, there has not been a single incident like the one Duckworth described in Concord. He believes having Safe Station is a better alternative for firefighters, than what they may encounter on random calls for service.
“These problems come to us every day, and we have to deal with them,” Goonan said. “They should probably get some training up in Concord, if they haven’t. It’s been invaluable for us.”
Editor’s Note: Concord Firefighter Jim Duckworth on Aug. 10 posted a “part 2” to his original “Safe Place” post. He says it’s meant to clarify some of his points, which include the need for training and lack of a place in Concord where firefighters could send someone in need. We would point out that, now that a HOPE for NH Community Recovery Center has opened in Concord, there is an opportunity to create such a system there, if officials are willing. Chief Goonan’s invitation to Duckworth, to come to Manchester and find out how the program is working, still stands.