SUMMIT COUNTY — Stow Fire Capt. Mike Griffin has visited a lot of drug overdose survivors to offer help, but one victim he especially remembers.
"The person we were talking to really wanted to explain his situation to us and what happened and what he's done since [he overdosed]," said Griffin.
Griffin is part of the city's quick response team, which is made up of a paramedic, a police officer and a drug counselor. The team, which formed in early 2017, visits the homes of people who recently survived a drug overdose to provide addiction treatment information.
Griffin said most visits take about five to 10 minutes, but this particular one lasted 15 or 20 minutes.
"We were more than happy to listen to him and give him encouragement," he said. "He had already sought out treatment. He was pretty proud of that and we were pretty proud of him."
Gerald Craig, executive director of the Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board, said 10 Summit County communities have formed QRTs in the last year or so. Besides Stow, they include Akron, Barberton, Copley, Coventry, Cuyahoga Falls, Green, Hudson, Munroe Falls, Norton, and Tallmadge.
Craig said the idea was brought to Summit ADM by Hudson resident Greg McNeil.
"Greg has been a great partner in all of this," said Craig.
McNeil started Cover 2 Resources, an addiction education and advocacy organization after his 28-year-old son Sam died of an overdose in October 2015. He brought the idea to Summit ADM in 2016 after discovering a similar program in Colerain, a township in Hamilton County with a population similar to that of Cuyahoga Falls.
McNeil credits Summit ADM and the communities for making the program "very successful."
"It started about a year ago and it seems to be picking up speed as they go along," said McNeil.
McNeil said the teams from the various communities get together every few months to exchange ideas and talk about their experiences.
"It's really exciting to sit in on those meetings and just sit back and watch all of them work together," he said.
Craig said the team counselors are provided by several county agencies, including the Community Health Center and Oriana House, both of which provide addiction treatment programs, and Summit County Public Health.
According to incomplete data Craig has, Cuyahoga Falls' QRT made 298 visits to 163 individuals between January and November 2017. Out of those visits, 65 people sought treatment.
"They were the first [QRT] program in the county," said Craig.
Cuyahoga Falls Patrolman Malachi Hursh, one of the officers who has gone out as a QRT member, said the police and fire departments check their records on overdoses to see who they will visit each week. A typical number has been three or five visitations, but this seems to be dropping off.
"The trend of late is there are less, just here and there kind of thing," said Hursh. "The best part about doing this and going out is when you do have contact with someone, they generally want the help. They're going through a rough patch in life," he added.
Stow and Munroe Falls QRTs made a total of at least 42 visits to 21 individuals between May and September, with 14 seeking treatment.
Tallmadge's team had made 25 visits through November, with the number of individuals spoken to uncertain. One person is known to have sought treatment, but Craig noted that some people end up seeking treatment on their own.
Hudson's QRT made two visits, said Craig, with both people seeking treatment.
Hudson Fire Chief Jerry Varnes said the city's team formed last April, but as of the end of January had made just two visits, one in June and the second in January.
"We're very fortunate that we don't have huge numbers [of overdoses] like some of our neighbors do, but we felt it was important to get started and have this process in place," said Varnes. "Hopefully we don't have to use it much, but at least we're there and ready to offer assistance as needed."
Griffin said the QRT tries to be low key when it visits.
"We go out to their house and knock on the door," he said. "If they answer, we explain that they're not in trouble at all, we're not here to arrest them or anything else like that. We're just there to offer services to them."
The counselor will leave information about treatment options along with her contact information.
"It's very non-confrontational. It's strictly voluntary," said Griffin. "A lot of times, we go and nobody answers the door so we go back again and again and again. We don't give up easily on people."
Munroe Falls Police Sgt. Al Moser said, "We try to make it comfortable."
"We'll go out there in an unmarked car so we don't make a scene," he said. "We also reach out to family members. They don't know what to do so it helps them know they're not alone and what kind of options there are for help."
Moser said that from April to mid-January, the city's QRT had made 31 visits to 10 individuals, with with five calling a help line provided to them and two seeking treatment.
Tallmadge Police Capt. Frank DiMenna said he was skeptical when he first heard about the QRT concept because it was his experience people are often not receptive to getting help, but he became a true believer once he saw it in action.
"The majority of everyone we visited that I was involved in for sure, they were very happy, almost relieved, to have someone come and say, 'Hey, we care about you and we want to help you and we're here right now," said DiMenna.
Local QRT members say that they wanted to get involved because of their own experiences in responding to overdose calls.
"It's part of our job," said Moser. "It shows that we're caring. It's not all about trying to arrest people. It's about going out and helping people with drug problems…giving them the resources. Just talking to them, 'Hey, we're here to help. You're not alone.'"
Craig said that the number of overdoses in the county have dropped in recent months, from a high of 12 or 13 per day on average in mid-2016 to about seven a day in January, but those fighting addiction cannot let their guard down.
"We also know we're vulnerable as a community to the next product that's left in our community and we can't control for that," he said. "So we continue to work as hard as we can to educate the community to make sure that we're doing everything we can to turn the corner on this problem."
McNeil said he just wants other families to not feel the grief his has experienced.
"[The QRTs are] making a difference in Summit County and for me personally, it's really, really exciting because it's my hope that because of their work, there will be some families spared the fate my family experienced," said McNeil.
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at 330-541-9431, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JeffSaunders_RP.