Back in May, Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan extended an open invitation to anyone struggling with an addiction: If someone walked into any of the city's 10 fire stations and asked for help, they would get it.
Since then, the number of people who've taken the city up on that offer has far exceeded the chief's expectations.
“We never imagined this program would be so successful,” Goonan says. “We started off thinking maybe we’d have a few a month. In our first month, in May, we had over 100 and we’re averaging over 150 at this point.”
On Thanksgiving, Manchester’s Safe Station program welcomed its 800th client through the doors, with a few more stopping by in the days since.
When people show up to the city’s fire stations asking for help, first responders will first check to make sure their vital signs are OK.
If the person's at risk for a medical emergency, they’re sent to a nearby hospital or otherwise given care. If they’re stable, the fire station will help to connect them with local recovery services or other supports.
“When they come through our doors, we give them a shot — 100 percent of the time, we give them a shot at recovery,” Goonan says. “We hook them up with the right people, the professionals. And those guys are the people doing the real hard work, on the back end.”
Of the more than 800 people helped by Manchester's Safe Station program so far, Goonan says just 300 have been Manchester residents – the rest have come from all over New Hampshire and New England. Some have even been residents of states as far away as Florida and California, he says.
“People come to the fire department, to the firefighters, because we’re here to help,” Goonan says. “That’s what we do, and it’s easy for people to walk in and receive services – whether it’s for drug use or to change a tire or to check a car seat, whatever it might be.”
With this in mind, Goonan says he’d encourage other stations to take up a similar effort.
Earlier this month, the city of Nashua launched its own Safe Station program – so far, officials there say they’ve helped about a dozen people, but they expect those numbers to grow as the word continues to get out.
“We’re always an industry of change, and we have to figure out how we can best help people,” says Nashua Deputy Fire Chief Karl Gerhard. “Every community needs to examine how they can best help their citizens the best way possible. If that means adding programs like this, it’s something everyone needs to take a look at.”