SALEM, N.H. — The conversations about opioid addiction and treatment were raw, honest and informative for the 13 Salem first responders participating in a 30-hour recovery coach training program.

The training, adapted for first responders, was taught by Ryan Fowler, a Certified Recovery Support Worker with the Doorway at Granite Pathways, and Michael Galipeau, a social worker and activist working on prison reform in New York. It focused on relationship building and trust to get people suffering from addiction into recovery as part of the New Hampshire Project FIRST, which Salem became part of this year.

“It’s another tool for us to be able to use to help the community — there’s an obvious epidemic and we want to be able to provide support,” Detective Michael Geha said. “We learned more about addiction (the disease) and people suffering from addiction and how to be approachable in situations to be able to help."

Commenting on Geha's word choice, “It’s always good when you have the word people first, because we are talking about people,” Galipeau said. Discussions during the training centered on de-stigmatizing addiction, Galipeau reiterated.

New Hampshire Project FIRST (First responders Initiating Recovery, Support and Treatment) is a grant-based program that helps first responders reach out to people, suffering from addiction, when they first come in contact with local officials whether it be from emergency medical services (EMS) or police officers responding to a burglary call.

“First responders are in a good place to see what is going on, and to meet people where they are,” said Paula Holigan, fire and EMS program manager for the Department of Safety. The program, based on Manchester’s “Safe Stations” program equips emergency personnel with resources to follow up with people who have overdosed in the community and offer resources such as information about recovery, CPR classes and the drug Narcan, Holigan said.

Speakers included recovery professionals, social workers, and a member of the Rockingham District Attorney's Office. Fowler and Galipeau have been in recovery for years and drew from their own experiences for the class.

One Salem firefighter asked if it ever got easier to see someone die of an overdose, because he and his fellow first responders often ask themselves “was there something I could do differently?” he said.

The short answer — no.

Fowler and Galipeau urged that these techniques can hopefully save people before an overdose death occurs.

“You have been saving lives, but recognize that’s not all,” Galipeau said. “Now (with these tools) you can transform lives.”

EMS Director Douglas Devine has been a driving force implementing Project FIRST. Devine wanted to ensure that everyone who comes into contact with first responders had the opportunity to get help.

“If it was just EMS we might be missing a big portion that the police department sees like people stealing to get opioids,” Devine said. He added this program will help the 65% of people who overdose in Salem that live in town, and for people who overdose in but aren't residents to reach out to local departments to do the followup.

It’s been a challenge because both departments are separate town entities, but the information is useful to all the first responders, and it’s been a fun experience working together, Devine said.

First responders enrolled in the program will do follow-ups with those who consent to the program. There will soon be a town hall format to discuss addiction.

Devine hopes that the town can adapt this model for other issues first responders come in contact with.

Everyone in the training hopes these services will erode the stigma of addiction and help people talk about it in order to access treatment.

The learning experience required openness and bravery, which everyone in the room committed to, Galipeau said.

“The bravery I see is not just the openness, but the challenge of re-examining the ways people view addiction, educating themselves to be more understanding,” Galipeau said. “And develop compassion for people sick and suffering to move away from the cycle of blame that often leads to the cycle of abuse.”

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