There is little debate that the opioid problem rampaging through the Ohio heartland is firmly entrenched in the Pickerington area as well, but progress is being made on the front lines.

The Pickerington Police Department has responded to 81 drug overdose calls in 2017, a significant increase over the previous year, according to Pickerington Police Commander Tod Cheney.

Cheney told Pickerington City Council's Safety Committee on Dec. 6 the department was called on 50 drug overdose incidents in 2016.

City officials at the meeting weighed in on how the city can deal with the escalating opioid epidemic.

"I know there is talk everywhere that we need to do something about this (problem). What are you planning on doing?" Safety Committee chairwoman Christie Hammond asked Cheney.

Cheney said a recently formed program called Project FORT "will make a big difference" in reducing those numbers locally.

Project FORT is an acronym for Fairfield County Overdose Response Team, a specialized team that will be dispatched after reported overdoses in the county.

"(Project FORT) just received a grant to fill a full-time position to oversee the program. We're piloting in the Violet Township area and want to spread it across the county," Cheney said.

Violet Township Community Paramedic J.D. Postage oversees the pilot program.

"We just received an (Ohio) Attorney General grant that is a two-year grant that will help cover (paying) for a director for Project FORT through the (Fairfield-Hocking) Major Crimes Unit," Postage said.

He said interviews for the position will start next week.

"It's for at least two years. If we're successful, we will look for more permanent funding and also see how much (Fairfield) County chips in," Postage said.

He said lives are being saved thanks to the early gains made by Project FORT in the battle against opioid addiction.

"It's going pretty good. We've piloted 12 patients. We've taken one patient directly to inpatient treatment and one to the hospital for withdrawal (treatment) and then they will go to inpatient," Postage said.

Project FORT aims to utilize the expertise of various stakeholders in Fairfield County to try and get to the root cause of addiction.

Area pharmacists, drug treatment professionals, the Fairfield County ADAMH (Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health) Board, law-enforcement representatives and others will collaborate with emergency responders to identify overdose victims and get them help.

Postage acknowledged the Violet Township statistics for overdoses are higher than Pickerington's, but he does not have the 2017 numbers compiled yet.

"One problem (with statistics) is we have to differentiate whether the overdose is from heroin or from a person accidentally overdosing on blood thinner medication," he said.

The final 2017 statistics will come out in January. Postage said he tracks heroin overdoses by cross-referencing CAD (computer-aided dispatch) data, firefighter reports, and when and how much naloxone is administered.

A future collaboration between Franklin County and Fairfield County also will allow Postage to accurately track heroin overdoses in both counties.

"We'll get 'real-time' data to see the trends taking place as they move through Franklin County to Fairfield County," he said.

Pickerington City Councilman Tony Barletta advocated for a "common sense" approach to fight the problem.

"I've heard statistics that more people die of overdoses than from traffic accidents in some (Ohio) counties," he said.

Hammond said those addicted need to want to get help.

"Everybody knows somebody with a drug problem. They have to really want to quit, because you can't make somebody (quit). These are sad situations. I hope we can see some improvement," Hammond said.

Postage said the program does not force individuals into treatment and is not a law enforcement arm.

"We can't tell (patients) what to do. If they're going to make that commitment to get better it's got to come from them," he said.

The program provides a community outreach model with a goal to help those in need of services by advising them of resources available locally.

Postage said building trust and relationships is a key component to the program.

Postage said once Project FORT is aware of an overdose client, "we make contact with them and let them know we're coming out and follow up anywhere between 24 to 72 hours."

He said the early tangible success stories with the new program show some progress is being made.

"Some clients are still ongoing with treatment. We will be there to advocate for them when they get out," he said.