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In A Florida County, Overdose Epidemic Is 'More Like A War'


We're going to hear now from a county in Florida that, like many places around the country, has seen a dramatic rise in drug overdoses - Manatee County on Florida's west coast. They recorded 216 emergency calls for overdoses in July alone. Last July, that number was 17. Michael Dunn is a firefighter with Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue in Bradenton, and responding to overdoses has become part of his daily routine.

MICHAEL DUNN: We've heard words thrown around lick epidemic. And the word epidemic's been used in newspapers a lot. The word epidemic, to me, is something that you kind of sit back and watch. This is more like a war because there's people dying in our community.

BLOCK: And what does that mean for you on a typical day?

DUNN: On a typical day, we respond quite a few times to overdose victims, and it's increasing dramatically from something that I've witnessed back whenever I started working in 2007 to now. It's been on a steady increase. Specifically this last year, it's been really, really bad.

BLOCK: Is there a pattern Michael, to who is overdosing, where you're finding people?

DUNN: Slightly. The thing with overdose - nobody's immune to it. But we're looking at the age 20 to 40, is our biggest jump in overdoses.

BLOCK: So that age group - and men, women?

DUNN: It's definitely male at 62 percent, but also, females are at 38.

BLOCK: And when you're responding, where, generally, are you going? Is it people in their own homes?

DUNN: We have responded to just about anywhere and everywhere that you can think of. Overdoses in vehicles - we've seen overdoses in bathroom stalls. We've seen overdoses in homes, just about anywhere.

BLOCK: I've read, Michael, that you have come up with a card that you want to give to overdose victims who have survived. What can you tell us about that?

DUNN: Yes. We've created a card that we can hand to anyone that meets the criteria for a substance abuse. And basically all it is is just a little index card that's been laminated. And on the front of the card with the words your life matters, and on the back of the card are numbers specifically to our county for substance abuse help.

BLOCK: Isn't part of the problem generally, though, that there just aren't enough treatment options available, there aren't enough beds?

DUNN: Yes. That is the biggest - in my opinion, the biggest hurdle that we're trying to overcome right now.

BLOCK: So you're giving people these cards, but it's unclear whether they actually could get help in these places.

DUNN: Yeah. And that's one of the things when we first designed the card, was instead of just putting Manatee County numbers, we extended the reach to other surrounding areas with hopes that they would be able to help someone.

BLOCK: Why did you come up with that idea for the cards in the first place?

DUNN: It was an idea that, after running so many overdose calls, we just - we felt the need to do something. I mean, anybody can sit around and go, oh, it's bad; it's so bad. But we decided that we wanted to actually take action and try to make a difference and do something. And I know it's probably not the best thing, but it was a start. And I'm hoping that we can continue to make a difference in our community, and we are. We're just trying to figure out how and where we need to go from here.

BLOCK: Michael Dunn is a fireman with Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue in Bradenton, Fla. Thanks so much for talking with us.

DUNN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.