Elite hazmat team takes 7NEWS inside Fentanyl overdose response

(WHDH) — Fentanyl can kill in an instant. And very few first responders in Massachusetts are fully trained to handle the life-threatening drug.

Last month, 7NEWS went inside their dangerous duty.

In August, three Chelsea police officers were taken to the hospital after being exposed to fentanyl at an overdose scene. One week before that, in Lawrence, first responders were sent to another overdose scene, which turned deadly. That scene was so unsafe, local police called in Massachusetts’ most elite hazardous materials experts.

“I think we’re seeing an increase in requests in support of law enforcement operations,” said Peter Ostroskey, the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal.

Ostroskey oversees the state’s Joint Hazard Incident Response Team (JHIRT). And the men and women who form part of that team gave 7NEWS a rare look at what happens when they’re called to a scene where fentanyl might be present.

“A very small amount of this substance will have a dramatic effect,” said Ostroskey.

That means oxygen tanks and protective gear are a must.

Fentanyl typically comes in powder or pill form, and can be injected, snorted, or swallowed. Inhaling even a few milligrams can be deadly, and it can pose a threat if it even touches the skin.

There are also dozens of variations of fentanyl.

“Now we’re seeing things like carfentanil and strains like that that are really super potent,” said Mike Kelleher, a JHIRT member and deputy fire chief for the Foxborough Fire Department.

The drug is so potent, dealers usually mix it with other, less dangerous drugs. So when hazardous materials experts get to a scene, they need to confirm whether fentanyl is there, which kind is present, and what other drugs it might be mixed with.

“We need to get through all the other stuff to find the fentanyl and identify it,” Kelleher said.

Kelleher showed 7NEWS a device, called a TacticID, which uses a tiny laser that can pinpoint the specific strain.

“You take a very small amount of fentanyl, put it in the acetone and wash it down. We take our strip, dry out the strip,” Kelleher explained. “And then we would use that strip, put it in there, and then the laser would shoot into this strip and help us identify fentanyl.”

Right now, that device can identify 38 variations of fentanyl. But criminals are creating new ones every day, so its memory has to be updated almost weekly.

The technology, like the threats, is ever-changing.

“We want to resolve these as quickly and as effectively as possible,” Ostroskey said.

JHIRT only responds at the request of local law enforcement – they don’t go to every overdose scene. But they are helping to educate local first responders, and urging them to take every precaution they can.

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