BRATTLEBORO — No strangers to the opioid crisis, three local officials are stressing the importance of working together.
"As has been said many times, we are not going to be able to arrest our way out of this epidemic and it is not a law enforcement crisis; it is truly a public health crisis," Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi, Brattleboro Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald and Brooks Memorial Library Director Starr LaTronica wrote in a memo earlier this month. "No one department, no one entity is going to beat this alone. It is going to take the collaboration of all of us."
Brattleboro emergency responders went to more than 100 overdose calls in 2018 and seven resulted in death, according to the memo.
"We do not see that slowing down as we have recorded almost 50 responses and two fatalities through April 2019," the officials wrote, adding that "the actual community-wide counts are likely higher."
Select Board members are talking about adding an item about the opioid crisis to their list of goals. New board members Daniel Quipp and Elizabeth McLoughlin had proposed the idea, which is anticipated to come back up at a meeting when board Chairwoman Brandie Starr is in attendance.
"I want to thank chiefs Mike and Starr for their memo," Quipp said during last week's board meeting. "I found it really interesting to read and I would encourage members of the public to take a look themselves."
Board Vice Chairman Tim Wessel called the memo "very helpful."
LaTronica said town staff collaborated like they do on opioid issues.
"We all work on it together and so I was delighted to be able to join the chiefs in their work and to discuss how we can further our collaboration so we can further understand the agencies and individuals we work with on a daily basis to support people in this community," she said.
LaTronica and the two chiefs suggested the board's goal should be: "To continue to support inter-agency efforts in the opioid crisis through active collaboration, raising awareness and communicating effective strategies."
Bucossi said members of the community largely see police and firefighters responding to calls but "there's so much more that goes on behind the scenes, that town staff does every day."
Fitzgerald indicated issues do not just go away after an arrest, hospital visit or other type of intervention.
"The library has been hit very, very hard with incidents down there," he said, so LaTronica "is involved in more of a compassionate, humane side of things in dealing with people who are suffering from this horrible disease."
The memo, Fitzgerald said, "shows how complex this issue really is. It's not a law enforcement issue. It's not a fire issue. It's not a library issue where they use the facilities there. It goes much, much deeper."
Fitzgerald said the hope is to show how the support of "subject matter experts" is much needed in the community. He urged the board, through its goals, to help continue the collaboration of different organizations in addressing the issues.
"There is a silver lining to all of this," Fitzgerald said. "We're being emulated throughout Windham County with other law enforcement agencies because they saw how Project CARE is having an effect down here and they really want to get that to other law enforcement agencies throughout the towns."
Project CARE, or Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement, sees police officers working with people in recovery to promote treatment. Car rides and appointments can be arranged.
"It's a good program," Fitzgerald said. "It's running really, really well. I think it's time now to let the subject matter experts take the lead. I mean we're still right there, you know, lockstep with them."
The memo says the town has "strong partnerships" with the Vermont Intelligence Center, the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, Groundworks Collaborative and Turning Point, and it has "past representation and continued partnership" with the Governor's Opioid Coordination Council.
Citizens can come to the police and fire stations to dispose of used or found needles, according to the memo. Those seeking help or a place to turn in their drugs also are encouraged to come to the stations.
Monthly meetings are held with governmental agencies and community organizations in order "to review, compare and coordinate information," according to the memo. There are plans to continue education through seminars and forums.
Under "Our Wants/Hopes for the Future," the officials suggested the Select Board and Representative Town Meeting members approve additional funding for Groundworks and Turning Point for "opioid crisis initiatives."
Fitzgerald called for more of a focus on what happens after treatment. Postcare, he said, is "most lacking in resources."
"We're there at their worst moment and we get them into care," he said. "What happens when they get back from care? Where do they go? What do they do? Who do they see? Who do they talk to? It's real easy to relapse and it's just a vicious circle."
LaTronica said she believes it is the job of the three authors of the memo to support those in recovery, educate people about the disease of addiction and "make sure everyone is safe."
"We know that the problem is huge," Quipp said. "So my hope in trying to write this goal is to have these conversations in the public sphere, involving multiple people, bringing in subject matter experts so that as a community we can start to make headway."
McLoughlin said she wants the community to know the collaborative efforts taking place.
"I think all three of you sitting up there are experts because you are there helping people," Wessel told the memo's authors. "I know all three of you and I know your hearts are with helping the community and helping people who are suffering from this disease. And I think you're our experts in how to best help and you're three really important resources to us. Along with all of the science experts and experts in addiction and other types of book smarts, you're our on-the-street smart folks. So I really appreciate that."
Concerned about methamphetamine use rising, Wessel warned that the drug situation could get "substantially worse before it gets better."
Asked if headline-grabbing drug busts in town recently made any difference, Fitzgerald said, "I wish I could say yes, but no. It disrupts their daily routine and it gets some really bad people off the street, but no. I can't even make it nice. No."
Fitzgerald said the approximately 10 overdoses he reports a month are "a small fraction" of those actually happening. He is hopeful that an app used for tracking overdose data locally, regionally and nationally will bring about a clearer picture and help with developing strategies.
Bucossi said Brattleboro Memorial Hospital hosted an all-day seminar Friday for first responders and public officials about how drugs affect users from just starting through recovery. A panel discussion followed by a public forum is scheduled for 6 p.m. June 18 at Central Fire Station downtown.
"We're going to be in the trenches for a long time," said Fitzgerald. "I mean this has been going on since the '90s if you go back to the pharmaceuticals and pain level became a vital sign ... It was probably 15 years in the making and we really got our work cut out for us."
LaTronica and Fitzgerald noted there are successful recovery stories in the community.
"It's not all doom and gloom," said Fitzgerald.
Bucossi said he often thinks about the toll on first responders.
"They're seeing more death and family destructive I guess you can call it than we've ever seen," he said. "That's a big part of the problem also. We need to watch that."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.