Lt. William Gutschick holds one of the Narcan kits purchased with the aid of a donation from the Riverside Juniors. | BOB UPHUES/Editor

Riverside police, thanks to a $1,300 gift from the Riverside Junior Woman’s Charity, may be able to save the life of someone who has overdosed on heroin. 

Last week, Police Chief Thomas Weitzel announced that each Riverside squad car is now equipped with a case containing two doses of Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an overdose immediately.

In addition, three department police officers —Sgt. Frank Pontrelli, Sgt. Jeffrey Miller and Officer Fabian Navarro — have been trained to recognize the signs of heroin and other opiate overdoses and how to administer the antidote via a nasal spray.

Those officers then trained the rest of the department’s police officers on how to administer Narcan.

“We do have heroin overdoses in Riverside,” said Weitzel. “To think that we don’t because this is Riverside is wrong. We do.”

Weitzel said police are often the first responders when someone calls 911 to report a possible overdose. Riverside police have responded to two such calls since 2013. 

In one instance, the man who overdosed was already dead when police arrived. But in 2013, when police arrived at the scene of an overdose on Forest Avenue the victim was alive and obviously suffering from the effects of the heroin.

The man ended up surviving, but police could do nothing for the man while waiting for paramedics to arrive.

“He didn’t die, but the Narcan would have helped,” Weitzel said.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency released its National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary in April. In it, the DEA found that deaths from heroin overdoses tripled between 2010 and 2013, and that the drug was a particular problem in the Northeast and Midwest regions of the country.

In 2013, more than 8,600 people in the United States died from heroin overdoses, according to the DEA. From 1999 to 2007, the number of deaths from heroin overdoses hovered around 2,000 annually.

The DEA also found that heroin use was growing at a much faster rate than any other drug and that heroin trafficking was also increasing.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of people in the United States who reported using heroin doubled between 2007 and 2013, from 161,000 to 289,000.

Narcan has few side effects and doesn’t cause harm if given to a person who is suffering from something other than an opiate overdose, said Weitzel. “We want to provide our officers with the tools necessary to save a life if they respond to an emergency or come upon a victim before paramedics arrive. If an officer can save even one life, this will have been a great success.”

Riverside police recently received the training and the Narcan through the DuPage County Narcan Program, along with police from LaGrange Park, Schaumburg, Western Springs and Countryside.

Cook County does not provide such training, said Weitzel. According to a Chicago Tribune article in June 2014, a spokeswoman for the Cook County Department of Public Health said the health department didn’t have the resources to train police from the more than 100 departments in the county.

According to Charlotte Zia, the immediate past president of the Riverside Junior Woman’s Charity, the donation funded the purchase of 19 carrying cases, each containing two doses of Narcan.

The club’s membership approved the donation in May, while Zia was still president. She said one of the club’s members knew that the police department was undergoing Narcan training but didn’t have the funds to buy the antidote itself.

“We all recognized it’s a really important issue and also what an easy solution was available to have access to,” Zia said. “It’s an issue people may not realize is happening in our community, but unfortunately it is. We saw this as a way to raise awareness and also provide a life-saving opportunity for the police department.”

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