It didn't take Whitehall Assistant Fire Chief Chris Menapace long to determine he was unique last spring among those who attended a national conference of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

He was the only fire chief present, he said, joining several hundred police chiefs who attended the conference in March to discuss how to stem the tide of opiate addiction.

From that conference, and with the assistance of a three-year, $400,000 grant received last year from the federal department's Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Whitehall Division of Fire established a SAFE station

SAFE stands for "Stop Addiction for Everyone."

Open 24 hours a day, the station is located in the lobby of the Whitehall Division of Fire, 390 S. Yearling Road.

Menapace said he learned about SAFE stations, in use at many police stations, at the conference and wondered what was stopping a similar area from being set up at a fire station.

SAFE stations provide a place for people who are experiencing an overdose to receive immediate treatment -- typically a dose of naloxone that reverses the effects of an opiate overdose -- and referrals for addiction-treatment centers.

Menapace said those who are opiate addicts, despite the best intentions of police, are likely to keep their distance from SAFE stations at police departments, even if they're experiencing a potentially fatal overdose.

"I heard police saying (at the conference) that their efforts to help (addicts) weren't being accepted," Menapace said.

"Police want to help as much as anyone but many (opiate addicts) perceive a police station as a barrier ... I think our SAFE station removes that barrier," Menapace said.

He said the station applies a "holistic approach" to addicts.

Those who arrive at the SAFE station are not subject to background checks or warrant checks, Menapace said.

"We work independently from police," he said, unless weapons or contraband are discovered or an assault or other crime is witnessed.

But Whitehall police, along with the Heart of Ohio Family Health Center and the Maryhaven Addiction Stabilization Center, are partners in the SAFE station program, and the work of police to stop the trafficking of opiates goes hand in hand with efforts to help addicts recover.

The SAFE station is a component of Whitehall's Help for Overdoses, or WHO, also funded with the federal grant.

The WHO program included a Whitehall town-hall meeting in June in collaboration with Franklin County Public Health during which naloxone was distributed and people could receive training in how to administer it.

In July, Sam Quinones, author of "Dreamland: the True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic," visited Kae Avenue Elementary School to discuss the issue.

Whitehall's SAFE station began operating June 11 and the first person visited three days later.

Through Sept. 20, almost 200 people had sought help at the SAFE station, Menapace said.

Of the 196 visitors, almost 55 percent started, are actively enrolled or have completed a detoxification program.

"Apart from immediately treating them, we link them to the resources they need to begin the path to recovery," Menapace said.

The effort has not gone unnoticed.

United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams called Menapace and asked to visit his department.

After the initial shock abated, Menapace said he was honored to host Adams and showcase the SAFE program that might become a model for other fire departments in the United States.

Whitehall leaders believe the SAFE station is the only such station inside a fire department in Ohio.

Menapace said he is aware of at least one other in the United States, in Massachusetts.

Adams toured the Whitehall Division of Fire on July 26 while in Columbus to speak with local law enforcement, faith leaders and representatives of the health-care industry about opiates.

He said Whitehall has one of the best SAFE programs in the country.

The epidemic will be overcome, he said, by "normalizing it."

Addiction, he said, is "a chronic disease and not a moral failing."

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo