Gov. Larry Hogan dropped by a Brooklyn Park firehouse Thursday to celebrate a year-old Anne Arundel County program that turns fire stations into 24/7 safe spaces for addicts to take their first steps toward recovery.
The Republican governor was briefed by County Executive Steve Schuh and fire department officials. He spoke with young adults with substance abuse problems who had been clean for months after connecting with treatment programs through the county's Safe Stations program.
By the time he paused to speak with the media, he sounded sold on the program's promise for helping in Maryland's struggle with an epidemic of opioid addiction.
"We want to roll it out to other counties, and we will help them with funding," Hogan said.
The Hogan administration had directed $287,000 to Anne Arundel's Safe Stations program for its startup year.
Jen Corbin, director of Anne Arundel County crisis response, said 666 people had been admitted into the program in the past year — a number that does not include people who stopped by to talk with firefighters and emergency medical technicians but decided they weren't quite ready to seek treatment.
Corbin, who runs the program, said it sometimes takes a few visits before an addict is ready to seek help.
"One person came in three times before he decided he was ready," she said.
So far, Corbin said, the program has an 81 percent success rate in getting addicts who seek help to continue on to treatment, with 58 percent actually completing their programs. That doesn't mean there won't be relapses, she said, but the program remains there if an addict seeks help again.
"We don't judge — just come back in," she told Hogan.
"You guys are really doing an incredible job," the governor told Schuh.
Schuh, a Republican, said the program has been far more successful than expected. He said that when it launched last April in county firehouses and the three run by the city of Annapolis, county officials expected a "trickle" of addicts but instead have served hundreds.
"No questions asked, nobody gets in trouble," he said. "All that happens is that they get help."
Schuh said a key to the program is that people see a fire station as a "non-threatening place" that is also open around the clock.
"A lot of people with addictions probably have legal problems and it's uncomfortable to go to a police station," he said.
The county program originated with Anne Arundel Fire Chief Allan Graves, who read in a firefighters' publication about a similar initiative in New Hampshire.
"The fire station creates the door that people are ready to walk through," Graves said.
The governor's office chose the Brooklyn Park firehouse because it has the county's busiest Safe Stations program. The second-busiest is the Forest Drive station run by the Annapolis Fire Department.
Annapolis Fire Chief David Stokes, who joined his county counterparts for Hogan's tour, said most people who come into his stations are accompanied by family members or friends.
"It's a family thing. They're at the bottom. They need help," Stokes said.
He said the vast majority of those seeking treatment use heroin and other opioids, but the program also addresses other addictions.
"We take anybody, alcohol or any type of addiction," he said.
The way the program works is that when addicts come into a station seeking help, EMTs do an assessment to determine whether they need emergency aid. If they are in severe withdrawal or other distress, the department transports them to a hospital.
If they don't need emergency help, a member of Corbin's crisis response team is summoned to talk with the patient about options for treatment. Once someone is in the system, crisis response workers track their progress. If they have problems with the legal system such as an imminent trial date, Corbin said, the staff will seek a postponement so the addict can go through treatment before facing a judge.
Before taking the tour, Hogan spoke with several addicts who launched their recovery efforts in county firehouses.
Tyler Edwards of Edgewater told Hogan he sought help through Safe Stations and has been clean since Dec. 27.
Edwards, 27, said he had been in and out of jail throughout his adult life, struggling with mental health issues and the drugs he took to self-medicate. He said the motivation was "just being on the streets in the freezing cold."
Tori Wagener, 23, of Glen Burnie, told Hogan she had 13 overdoses because of her addiction to the deadly opioid fentanyl.
"It's not a joke. I just had a friend die yesterday," she told Hogan.
The mother of twins, who is expecting her third baby, said she finally went to a fire station off Crain Highway and met with crisis counselors.
"They were amazing. Very supportive and helpful," she said.
Now she's been clean for almost six months, she told the governor.
"Stay strong," Hogan told her.