Village public safety officers get opioid response training in Juneau as statewide overdose rates climb

Interior: Two people discuss a list of chest compression techniques.
Michael Betts and Logan James-Lee discuss CPR compression techniques at an opioid response training at the Generations Southeast building in Juneau on July 21, 2022. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

Michael Betts is a village public safety officer for the community of Hydaburg on Prince of Wales Island. Under the fluorescent lights of a classroom, he knelt in front of a life-sized dummy that he was told was overdosing on opioids.

Betts checked his pulse.

“Hey man,” he said, giving the dummy a shake. “He’s not breathing.”

Betts quickly unwrapped a package of naloxone nasal spray, stuck it in the dummy’s nose and sprayed.

“You’re always going to want to call 911 once you administer that Narcan,” a trainer from the fire department tells him. “When it kicks in, they’re going to go into immediate withdrawals.”

Betts is the only first responder who lives in Hydaburg, a community of about 400 people. He said he knows a lot of opioids are trafficked into town and then distributed to the rest of Prince of Wales Island, but he hasn’t had to resuscitate a real person with naloxone yet.

“Everybody probably has Narcan in their purse, in their glove box, somewhere in their house in a drawer,” Betts said. “A lot of times we don’t even get called. We hear about it the next day.”

Betts and eight other people came to Juneau to take part in an opioid overdose response course offered by Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, with funds from a federal grant. The classroom role play is meant to prepare him and other village public safety officers for an overdose situation, where they’re likely to be the first person on the scene.

Interior: a CPR dummy rests on the ground as volunteers prepare to practice administering Narcan.
Participants prepare to give Narcan to a dummy. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

Alaska has the fastest rising opioid overdose rate in the nation. More than 200 Alaskans died from overdoses in the last year.

Jason Wilson runs the public safety department for the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida. He said VPSOs are the definition of first responders.

“They’re not just law enforcement,” he said. “They’re also EMTs. They’re also the ambulance drivers. They’re the fire chief, or they’re a part of the fire department. They’re a big part of the search and rescue within a community. They’re animal control within a lot of our communities.”

The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida runs the VPSO program for the Southeast Alaska communities of Kake, Angoon, Pelican, Saxman, Hydaburg, Thorne Bay and Kasaan.

“Being able to respond to overdoses is really important to the Tribe, and in our communities. So we’re pretty excited about this,” Wilson said.

They’re not just learning how to treat a health emergency, they’re also learning how to police narcotics. One of the instructors Central Council brought in was Chris Cuestas, a former police detective and a national drug expert.

He said Alaska is seeing a peak in opioids, especially fentanyl, and that the state has the same distribution patterns and the same underground market network of narcotics as he sees nationwide.

“The challenge is how do we minimize their influence in communities and villages in Alaska,” he said.

That’s a challenge because these remote communities are small and have few law enforcement resources. But Cuestas said it’s also a strength. He thinks the VPSO program is ahead of the national curve because individual officers have so many roles.

“You are actually able to participate in some of the prevention and intervention,” he said. “Even the community education components to reduce some of the risk factors in the community.”

He said that’s the direction he expects a lot of law enforcement agencies in the Lower 48 to take.

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