Seattle to launch new overdose response unit to battle fentanyl epidemic


Shane Ersland


City officials will utilize a new overdose response unit to help address Seattle’s ongoing battle with fentanyl.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell discussed the initiative during an address at Kasama Pioneer Square on Monday. He issued an executive order to revitalize the downtown area, which includes the creation of the overdose response unit. 


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“The fentanyl crisis on our streets is causing death and disorder,” Harrell said. “We have an obligation to do more for those suffering from substance abuse disorder. The fentanyl crisis is just playing out on our streets, and we see it every single day.”

Harrell said Seattle had 589 overdose deaths in 2022 (with the majority of deaths attributed to fentanyl and methamphetamines) compared to 342 in 2021. 

“But even 342 is alarming,” he said. “That was an increase of 72%. Overdose is the leading cause of unintentional fatal injury in King County. And it’s our most vulnerable who are impacted disproportionately. These numbers are staggering …”

The city’s approach to addressing the fentanyl crisis will be two-pronged, Harrell said. Law enforcement officers will attempt to disrupt the distribution and sale of synthetic drugs, while also arresting narcotics traffickers. That effort will be coupled with an evidence-based public health approach to support people struggling with addiction, he said. 

“We will be convening a working task force to figure out how that works from a coordinated effort,” Harrell said. “We need innovative programs to respond to overdoses, and we need to connect (addicts) with proven treatment recovery services. We are piloting a research-based drug abatement program known as contingency management in an effort to encourage individuals with substance abuse disorder to accept treatment services. We will do what makes sense to get people into treatment.”

The city will expand the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program to include an overdose response unit dedicated to swiftly engaging overdose survivors in order to increase their acceptance of services or referrals. Part of that work will include expanding access to the overdose reversal medication Narcan in locations that see high instances of overdoses, Harrell said. 

“We’re going to be convening a meeting with our public health partners to establish a post-overdose diversion facility where people can be brought after nonfatal overdoses to recover,” he added. “We have to cite it, fund it, find a way to fund it, [and] work with funding partners. But we realize we have a shortage of access for these types of facilities.”

Health One program staff respond to individuals immediately in their moment of need to help them navigate emergency situations and determine whether they need medical care, mental healthcare, shelter, or other social services. During the address, Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said the program has been operating since 2019, and the firefighters and case managers that staff it excel at building relationships. 

“And really, that’s what this is all about,” Scoggins said. “What we’re going to be adding on the street is, when a person has an overdose, generally 911 is called. And what’s going to happen now is Health One is also going to respond to that overdose. But Health One comes with case managers and firefighters who are trained differently, to actually talk to folks and really explain the resources that are available to them.”

After an overdose situation has been addressed, and emergency personnel have left the scene, Health One staff will remain there in order to offer resources that can assist the individual, Scoggins said.

“Not just the day of [the incident],” he said. “They’re going to check in the day after, just like we do [with] people in crisis, people who are homeless, and so many other things. Our goal is to offer resources and get them to where they need to be. And our firefighters can be pretty persistent in getting people where they need to be.”

The department currently utilizes three Health One units, and they will operate the new overdose response unit, Scoggins said. The pilot program will operate for three to six months, and staff will record data on its progress, and relay that information to the mayor.

State lawmakers are considering legislation that could also assist with overdose situations. Senate Bill 5022 would legalize equipment used to test substances for fentanyl in Washington, which would make drugs like Narcan more accessible. SB 5022 passed in the Senate on March 7th, and was approved by the House Committee on Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry on March 27th. It is now in the House Rules Committee.

During the address, Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson said addiction is a cause and consequence of chronic homelessness, which prompted her to propose a pilot program to help cover the costs of treatment for substance use disorders for those who can’t afford them last year.  

“It’s to broaden our approach to substance use disorder and broaden the scope of the treatment services we have to offer,” Nelson said. “Because it was apparent to me that we have a moral obligation to step up our efforts and try something new. This executive order speaks to that urgency.”