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'We're beating our heads against a wall': Overdoses take lives and a toll on Portland firefighters, with no solution in sight

A KGW crew rode along with Portland Fire & Rescue’s Station 1 for a first-hand look at their response to overdoses downtown. It painted a grim picture.

PORTLAND, Ore. — A man surrounded by his homeless friends lay on the sidewalk off Northwest 5th and Davis in Old Town. He had just overdosed on opioids and Portland firefighters were helping to revive him while trying to talk him into going to the hospital. It was 4 p.m. on a Monday. The scene was heavy, but one these firefighters now see every day.

“It's hard to see people in that state,” said Portland paramedic firefighter David Friedericks. He’s been with Portland Fire & Rescue for 13 years. For the last five he’s worked at Fire Station 1 downtown, the busiest fire house in the city — especially when it comes to overdoses. “At this point I’m kind of calloused but we just go on these calls, and they become routine. It used to be kind of a big deal to go on an overdose.”

Not anymore. In June alone, firefighters from Station 1 responded to 300 overdoses.

Portland police data shows that back in 2020 nearly 90 people died from overdoses. The number jumped to 135 in 2021, then to 159 in all of 2022. So far this year there have been 151 deaths, all in less than seven months. Police expect that number to be around 300 by year's end. 

Portland firefighters are responding to more overdoses than fires — and when they do respond to a fire, it’s often-homeless camp related. When a KGW crew was riding along with Station 1 firefighters, three OD calls dropped in a matter of 25 seconds. They headed to one under a bridge in Southwest Portland.

“He hit some strong fetty and he just fell out and he was grey, turning grey, and his eyes were rolling back in his head. We just narcaned him and he came back,” said a drug user whose friend had just overdosed.

By "fetty," she meant fentanyl. Before KGW got there, his friends were able to revive him with Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal medication.

“It's very traumatic, traumatizing for her. I don't really know how I got here, necessarily, other than my poor choices,” said the man who had just overdosed on fentanyl.

Like the man in Old Town, he didn't want to go to the hospital.

“I obviously made a mistake,” he said.

This wasn't his first overdose. But since he's alive and coherent, there's nothing else first responders can do. So, everyone just moves on.

“I just need to kind of reset back into reality here a little bit if I can,” the man recovering from the overdose said.

Not long after that call, two more OD calls came in. The fire crew headed to one off Northwest Naito under the Steele Bridge, in a notorious homeless camp called The Pit.

“My friend just overdosed on fentanyl and uh, yeah, he literally died right here ... he was purple, we had to give him CPR, Narcan him. I literally had to breathe into him until I felt him come back to life,” said one drug user, rubbing the back of her friend who had just overdosed.

Friedericks asked the man three questions and made sure someone would stay with him before moving on.

“He's been through this before, there's no need for him to go to the hospital when he's alright. There's nothing, they can do for him there that I can't do right here,” the man's friend said.

It’s rare for crews to show up to an overdose where Narcan hasn't already been given. They fear the accessibility of Narcan gives drug users a false sense of security and in some ways could be making the crisis worse, even though it saves lives.

“Their heart stops working and everything shuts down, their brain stops working — and without Narcan, they'll die,” Friedericks said.

“It's like watching a slow-motion train wreck where you're not able to help stop the problem and it just continues to happen again and again,” added firefighter John Mountz.

Each time they respond to what has become an endless, exhausting routine.

“We're beating our head against a wall and the numbers that we're dealing with are unsustainable,” Friedericks said.

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