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Citizen of the Year: Chris Hickey's Safe Station brings hope to the hurting

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 23. 2016 8:16PM
Manchester EMS Officer Chris Hickey started the Safe Station program, which is on track to help its 1,000th client in the new year. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

The calendar says it's Christmas weekend, but Madisen Petersen months ago received the only gift he was hoping to get.

In October, Petersen, a 26-year-old heroin addict from Manchester, walked into Central Fire Station seeking help from a new program he'd heard about.

A program called Safe Station.

"I got my life back," said Petersen. "I don't think I would be alive right now without it."

Safe Station transformed the Queen City's 10 fire stations into intake centers, where addicts head for help without fear of being arrested. The program, which helped 100 people within a month of debuting back on May 4, is on track to welcome its 1,000th client in early 2017, and has spread to other communities across the state and is being discussed in cities around the nation.

Christopher Hickey, Manchester's emergency medical services officer and the man who drafted the initial proposal for Safe Station, is the Union Leader Citizen of the Year.

"I'm just overwhelmed," said Hickey, who lives in Merrimack with his wife, Melissa, and sons, Gavin and Seamus. "It's an honor I never thought I would be considered for, never mind receive. This is something we've done together as a city. I'm just the one who happened to come up with the idea and write it down."

"Such a simple idea"

The basic premise of Safe Station is a simple one - an open door. If someone walks into any Manchester fire station seeking help, they get it.

When someone walks in, first responders check to make sure the person's vital signs are OK. If the person is at risk for a medical emergency, they are sent to a local hospital or given the necessary care. If they are determined to be stable, fire personnel connect them with recovery and support services.

"It is such a simple idea but no one, and I include myself in this, no one thought of it before," said Patrick Tufts, president and CEO of Granite United Way, which married up its 2-1-1NH information and referral line with Safe Station. "And I think its simplicity is part of the reason why it's so successful."

Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan said Hickey developed the initial proposal for Safe Station last March, after learning that a relative of a fellow firefighter was struggling with opioid addiction and on the brink of suicide.

"He was hooked on heroin, living on the streets and came in looking for help," said Goonan. "He came with his brother-in-law and asked Chris what can we do for him? As a department we struggled the whole year before that, trying to figure out how to deal with this heroin crisis. Chris said why don't I walk you down the street - which was Hope for NH Recovery at the time - and why don't we get you some help."

Goonan said the man ended up getting treatment, getting help and getting sober.

"Chris started putting together a bit of a plan after that," said Goonan.

At Hickey's request, Goonan sent a description of what they did to Mayor Ted Gatsas, as an example of a "feel-good story."

In the email, dated March 29, 2016 at 8:16 p.m., the first seeds for Safe Station were planted.

"The fact that we could reach someone at the immediate time that they are asking for help made all the difference," wrote Hickey. "This really has me wanting to develop some sort of program that EMS can get involved with this process, too. Being part of the process and being able to convince someone that if there was ever a time to get what they need is right when they ask for it made all the difference.

"Why couldn't firehouses and police stations be 'Safe Havens,' something similar to the old Baby Safe Havens?" wrote Hickey. "Yes, they aren't manned 24 hrs a day because of calls, but someone may be more likely to reach out to those they know help during emergencies."

'Get this done'

Gatsas liked what he read.

"I went back and told Chris, 'The mayor would love for you to try and put this into some sort of a plan,'" Goonan said. "He told me, 'I'm kinda sorta working on something.' The idea really was let people come to us rather than us go to them, and maybe we'll reduce the problem that way. It was a simple but really out-of-the-box idea."

"Within five seconds of reading it, it made a lot of sense," said Gatsas. "Chris said this is probably going to take 6 to 18 months to get this done. I said you've got three weeks to get this done. He said, 'Mayor, I have to get approval from Concord.' I said, Don't worry about it.'"

Goonan said the paperwork was sent on a Thursday. By the next day, it came back with the proper approvals.

"We took an idea, a good idea, and the mayor helped us put it out there," said Goonan. "We thought even if we just help a few people, it's worth it. We never thought we would be averaging 150 people a month."

'The tides are turning'

The latest round of Safe Station statistics released by Hickey's department offers good news.

According to Hickey, the Safe Station program received its 920th participant on Dec. 16. Of those 920 clients, 324 are Manchester residents. Participants have come from as far away as Birmingham, Ala.

"Countless numbers of families affected by this now have hope and still have their loved ones with them for this holiday season because of the efforts of this entire community," wrote Hickey in an email. "You can't argue with progress and you can't argue with the data. Let's take the past 4 months of data from 2016 and compare it to the data from 2015 - 51 fewer overdoses. 5 fewer deaths. The tides are turning."

Local public health and safety officials agree that the statistics point to the program's success.

"If you look at the numbers, we're probably going to be at about the same number of overdoses," said Manchester Health Director Tim Soucy. "But if those 1,000 people hadn't come in to Safe Station seeking help, I'm not sure where we would have been in terms of overdoses. That number would be so much higher. There's no question this program has saved people's lives."

"So many of those nearly 1,000 are people we have never encountered before," said Chris Stawasz, regional director of American Medical Response out of Nashua. "That's like a whole group besides the people we are familiar with."

"For us, we're at 676 calls for service for overdoses," said Manchester Asst. Police Chief Carlo Capano. "I can't even imagine what it would be if they weren't getting the services they receive through Safe Station. Also, some of our crime trends like thefts from motor vehicles and burglaries are going down. When we do catch people and interview them, 99 percent of them are drug addicts. that are doing these crimes to feed the habit and we're starting to see a decrease in that."

"I was lost"

Madisen Petersen, who grew up in Farmington, said his addiction to heroin cost him a couple of "great jobs," and was causing problems with family members at home. He walked into Central Station around 6 p.m. one night last October, after learning about Safe Station through local media.

He was brought to Serenity Place, where after 36 days he began volunteering and helping others. He hasn't used heroin for 55 days, and hopes to get a job at Serenity full-time sometime in the near future.

Petersen said he has never met Hickey, but hopes to soon.

"I would thank him for saving my life," said Petersen.

"He is Safe Station"

Lu Mulla, a register nurse and the vice president of operations for Clinical and Emergency Services at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, has toured all corners of the state with Hickey promoting the Safe Station program.

"I've dragged Chris all over the North Country with me, where he goes and talks the language to EMS and firefighters," said Mulla. "He is Safe Station. He's the man. He knows how to talk to all audiences. They listen to him. They're not going to listen to another politician."

"Chris' demeanor, his humility ... when I sit with him and we talk, it is always about helping someone else," said Stephanie Bergeron, CEO of Serenity Place. "If you try to compliment him ... we were in a meeting one day and a woman at the table from the Manchester school district called him a hero. He couldn't even talk the rest of the meeting, because he doesn't have that nature. He's so focused on the task at hand and doing things the right way. It maybe took someone like Chris to bring such a simple idea to the forefront, and bring all of us to the table."

Expanding the program

Last month the city of Nashua launched its own version of the Safe Station program. Mayor Jim Donchess recently told Gate City aldermen the program helped 29 people in its first 26 days.

"It's been quite successful," said Donchess.

Laconia recently launched its own version of the program, along with Hooksett and Auburn.

Soucy said when he attended a dinner in New Jersey in October to accept the 2016 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize on behalf of the city, health officials from communities across the country approached him about Safe Station.

"We've talked to the Bronx fire department, they are interested," said Soucy. "Miami-Dade County in Florida wants to implement this, because it's so simple."

"We get calls from all over the country about this program," said Goonan. "One way or another, this thing is going nationwide."

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