It starts, usually, with the ringing of a fire station doorbell. Someone new has come for help — maybe a parent with a struggling teenager or an adult who has realized that his life is being unraveled by drug addiction.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, firefighters and police officers at stations in Anne Arundel County are ready to assess people addicted to opioids and set in motion a broader coalition that can get them quickly into drug treatment, whether or not they have money to pay.
The suburban Maryland county, which has been hard-hit by the nation's opioid epidemic, expected up to five people a week to use the Safe Stations program after it was launched in April. Instead, nearly three times that many have shown up.
The first was Jenna Keefer, 29, who woke up to a Facebook post on April 20 promoting Safe Stations. In previous weeks, she said, she had tried and failed to get help from family and friends. Now, the fire station down the street from where she grew up, in Brooklyn Park, Md., was opening its doors.
"When I got there, it was a no-brainer; I couldn't turn it down," Keefer said. "What they were offering me was basically a new life. That was what I needed to do."
The program is an unusual collaboration between the police and fire departments, the Anne Arundel Crisis Response System, the county health department and the state's attorney's office.
Police and fire stations are the points of entry. The crisis-response teams are the lifelines to treatment centers. The health department provides grant money and referral services. And the state's attorney's office — headed by a prosecutor, Wes Adams (R), whose brother-in-law died of an overdose in January — tries to address barriers to treatment, such as voiding warrants and postponing court dates for addicts so that they can qualify for drug treatment.
"It's the worst point in their life, and they just want help," Charles Phillips, who was a fire captain in Brooklyn Park until he retired last week, said of the addicts who have participated in Safe Stations. "They're the most decent people, and they're very thankful."
There have been more than 720 heroin and opioid overdoses — more than 90 of them fatal — in the county so far this year, according to the fire department. Last year, there were 153 fatal overdoses from heroin and prescription opioids, according to the state health department, compared with 71 fatalities five years ago. The rising numbers led to the creation of a task force that, in turn, launched the Safe Station program.
"We were losing people and our overdoses were rising, so we said, 'What can we do with our resources together?' " said Crisis Response System Director Jen Corbin.
Initially, each agency had to find money from within its budget to cover any costs. In July, with Crisis Response System teams stretched thin by the unexpected popularity of the program, the state awarded the county a grant of $287,000 to hire more personnel.
"We're getting them when they're ready," said Anne Arundel Fire Chief Allan Graves. "It's hard for someone at 1 a.m. to get on the Internet or call people. Now they have one stop — a fire station or police station."
Of about 100 people who sought help from Safe Stations between April 20 and July 31, 87 agreed to enter drug treatment, county officials said. Forty-one of those people had completed inpatient programs by July 31. Nine were still in treatment, and four were awaiting placement.
Officials did not yet have similar data for the approximately 50 people who sought help through Safe Stations in August. Of Anne Arundel's 31 fire stations, Brooklyn Park has received the most addicts seeking treatment, officials said, about 1 out of 4 who have come to stations so far.
About 80 percent of the people who enter drug treatment through the Safe Stations program go to Hope House Treatment Center, which is one of the largest residential programs in the state and has locations in Laurel and Crownsville.
Executive Director Peter D'Souza said that Safe Stations participants go to the top of the wait list, so they can get into treatment right away.
"These people are in life-and-death situations," he said.
Keefer completed a program at Hope House and is living in a sober house for women in recovery. She is looking for a job.
Without Safe Stations, "I really don't think I would have made it this far," she said. "You get clean or you die."