Emergency response team cruising streets to save lives among Kensington heroin users

Paul Kurtz
October 07, 2019 - 7:56 am
Alternative Response Unit

Paul Kurtz/KYW Newsradio


PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — An emergency response unit that launched last April following the opiod crisis is showing promising results, according to city officials. They're saving lives and getting more people who are addicted to opioids into treatment. 

As a member of the Alternative Response Unit  or AR-2  Tiesha Thomas cruises the streets of Kensington in a bright red SUV searching for heroin users who have overdosed.

AR-2 is part of the Philadelphia Resilience Project, a campaign to combat the opioid crisis from various angles.  


"I feel like I've made a big difference," Thomas said. "We have a lot of succes stories. But there come days where we're being fought, we're being spit at, kicked at, argued. We're being called names. They walk away, but we still keep pushing."

One drug user who overdosed hours earlier gave her attitude as he grudgingly accepted a ride to a treatment clinic just hours after she helped revive him.

Alternative Response Unit
Paul Kurtz/KYW Newsradio

What makes AR-2 unique is its innovative team approach. Thomas is a paramedic. Her partner is a social services case manager. Responding to the actual overdose is only a first step. 

"We do try to talk to them and encourage them, you know, that treatment is available and that we can help them right now," Thomas said.

Members of the unit say they're distributing Narcan to about 10 people a day. The paramedic is able to determine quickly if the drug user is able to begin treatment and allows the person to be placed in a facility more quickly. 

"We try to get rapport with the patients down there. Let them build trust with us, let them know there is hope, that we are here to help them," Thomas said. "A lot of them know me down there, and I always say, 'Today is the day. Today is the day.' And they say, 'Not today, Thomas.' And at some point they do, they come over and say, 'I'm ready.' And I take them to treatment."

They recently helped Dominic Rodriguez get his life back. 

"I feel great," Rodriguez said. "They actually facilitated me getting into a recovery house. Just got on suboxone treatment. This way it blocks the opioid receptors in your brain and you can try to continue to stay clean, go to meetings."

Alternative Response Unit
Paul Kurtz/KYW Newsradio

Six months into this program the city has added a new tool. AR2-A is an ambulance-sized vehicle that looks like a mobile office inside. Case manager Donna Echols says this unit serves as a quiet place for patients to pull themselves together.

"We had one yesterday. Brought him back yesterday. He relaxed, cooled off, while I got him funding and found a bed for him."