Washington, D.C., is a big city with big city problems.
In less than one hour, the News4 I-Team witnessed a car crash, a fire and yet another stabbing in Northeast while following a single D.C. Fire and EMS captain from one emergency to another.
But DCFEMS Deputy Chief Rafael Sa’adah said he’s never seen anything take a toll on his EMS system like synthetic drugs.
"As a 25-year veteran of this department, it's as scary as anything we've seen," Sa’adah said.
He’s been collecting numbers on how often his crews respond to synthetic drug overdoses. The newest numbers for September show D.C. is now averaging at least 20 runs a day, with as many as 34 on particularly bad days.
To put that in perspective, the city averages only one-to-two heroin overdoses each day.
Sa’adah said they responded to a total of 611 calls for synthetic overdoses in September, outnumbering car accidents (591), strokes (61), cardiac arrests (58) and stabbings (32).
"We began seeing some disturbing clusters of mass overdoses which are fairly unusual," Sa’adah said. It started this summer near the Federal City homeless shelter, when calls came in for almost a dozen people collapsing. "But they're spread out in a two-to-three block radius and they're not presenting all at the same time. They're presenting an hour, two hours, sometimes even three hours after the initial 911 dispatch."
As the clusters kept happening throughout the summer, Sa’adah said, they realized they were sending multiple crews to the same location for the same problem.
"So we've adapted,” he said. “The crews are now trained to be alert for patterns of overdoses. We'll send a battalion chief, an EMS supervisor, to establish an incident command and essentially treat it as a slow moving mass casualty event."
In other words, DCFEMS is now responding to synthetic overdoses the same way they react to a mass shooting or a major Metro accident.
Capt. Roger St. Laurent is one of those EMS supervisors. The News4 I-Team spent several days with him as he crisscrossed the city responding to drug overdoses.
The I-Team was with him as he entered a back alley in Northeast, where multiple police officers surrounded an older man in handcuffs. An officer told St. Laurent they were called to a domestic dispute and think the man is on K-2, their generic name for synthetic cannabinoids that are often smoked like marijuana.
As he took the man’s blood pressure, St. Laurent asked him, "How long ago did you smoke?"
When the man responded, “15 minutes," St. Laurent gently smiled at him and asked, “What are you doing? You're too old to be doing stupid crap like K-2."
St. Laurent’s team transported the man to a local hospital, where the I-Team was told it can take as long as two days for the drugs to work through the human body.
But the handcuffs stay on.
"We've had several incidents where crews have had to call in [an] emergency assistance call, because they were being assaulted by patients," Sa'ahad said.
As a result, they’re now sending multiple police and EMS crews to suspected synthetic cases, he said, further straining an already stressed-out system that's had a 40 percent increase in EMS transports in just seven years.
"This is a very, very, very significant operational impact,” Sa’ahad said. “Because it's using a lot of resources, it then impacts the availability of resources for other life threatening time sensitive emergencies as well.”
Like the stabbing call that came in moments after the overdose. St. Laurent and his team tried to save the life of a man knifed at least four times in the stomach and chest near Langston Terrace in Northeast, but it became a murder scene before the day’s end.
A brutal reminder of what is at stake each time an ambulance gets called away for yet another synthetic drug overdose.