La Crosse firefighters soon could start carrying a life-saving drug for heroin users.

The department is applying to be one of the state’s first groups of basic emergency medical technicians to administer Narcan, the antidote to an opiate overdose.

Firefighters head to all medical calls in the city along with Tri-State Ambulance paramedics, who are the only local emergency responders authorized to give Narcan. The department has witnessed a 53 percent jump in the number of potential drug overdoses since 2009, Chief Gregg Cleveland said.

In 2012, firefighters responded to 98 potential overdoses and 86 so far this year.

“We’re going to see more and more overdoses of heroin because of the trend,” said Chris Eberlein, a Gundersen Health System doctor who is medical director for the fire department and Tri-State. “We’ve seen a huge uptick and there is no reason to believe that is going to change.”

Currently, firefighters can only work to manage a patient’s breathing and circulation until paramedics arrive with Narcan, Cleveland said.

“We’re at every medical emergency situation,” he said. “When we can start the intervention earlier, the better the outcome will be.”

The fire department approached the Wisconsin Emergency Medical Services office preparing to launch a pilot project that puts Narcan in the hands of basic EMTs.

The program is an answer to climbing heroin use and deaths, coordinator Frederick Hornby II said.

Agencies can begin applying next month. Basic EMTs with up to 50 agencies statewide will carry Narcan for one year beginning Jan. 1, Hornby said.

In early 2015, the state’s EMS Advisory Board will analyze results and discuss whether to equip all basic EMTs with the drug.

They will administer Narcan nasally or by injection. It works in minutes.

“The number of bad outcomes with Narcan is extremely small compared to just about any other drug,” Eberlein said. “It is very, very safe.”

The drug also could save users suffering an overdose from krokodil, a flesh-eating drug similar to heroin that officials expect to eventually make its way to La Crosse.

Cleveland said he is hopeful the state selects the La Crosse Fire Department because of its size and volume of medical calls.

“The problem with heroin is huge in this city,” he said.

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