By Erica C. Barnett
On Wednesday, the Seattle Police and Fire Departments responded to questions from the Community Police Commission about some of the circumstances that may have contributed to the death of Jaahnavi Kandula, a 23-year-old pedestrian who was killed in a marked crosswalk by SPD Officer Kevin Dave. Dave was driving to join Seattle Fire Department EMTs at a suspected overdose in South Lake Union. According to the response from Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, Seattle Fire Department policy requires police to be present when SFD responds to overdoses, because “overdose patients can become violent during treatment to reverse the overdose.”
The CPC asked the Fire Department to explain the reason it requires police officers to be present when Fire responds to overdose calls, posing four questions about the policy, how it came about, and “What percentage of drug overdose calls prior to the implementation of this policy included compromised safety, assaults, and/or injuries to SFD personnel related to reversing the effects of an overdose?”
In his response, Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said that the requirement “goes back at least 20 years and is designed to provide scene safety for firefighters and paramedics as overdose patients can become violent during treatment to reverse the overdose.” He did not answer the CPC’s question about how common it is for people coming out of overdoses to be violent, saying only that “[e]ncountering combative patients or bystanders on emergency responses has unfortunately become a reality for firefighters and paramedics.”
Narcan (or naloxone), the widely available overdose reversal drug, is used daily by non-emergency responders, including drug users themselves, and other public employees are trained to use it in the absence of paramedics or any armed response. In 2019, then-Washington state health officer Kathy Lofy signed a “standing order” that made Narcan available over the counter without a prescription to any person who wants it, calling it a “very safe,” life-saving medication.
“When weighing the decision to respond using emergency driving, officers must consider if the incident is life threatening, road conditions, vehicle and pedestrian traffic, weather, speed, lighting, and their own driving abilities.”—Police Chief Adrian Diaz
In his letter, Scoggins said SFD has developed a “new method for tracking assaults and threatening behavior experienced by firefighters in the field,” in general, and has begun reporting this information. PubliCola has asked SFD for this data and will update this post with additional information when we receive it.
Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz also responded to the CPC’s questions. After describing the training officers receive in “emergency driving”—driving under emergency circumstances, such as a high-priority call where someone’s life is at risk—Diaz said officers are justified in taking “risks [that] “can result in severe consequences for the public and the officer. … When weighing the decision to respond using emergency driving…. [o]fficers must consider if the incident is life threatening, road conditions, vehicle and pedestrian traffic, weather, speed, lighting, and their own driving abilities.”
Diaz said the fact that the overdose was a Priority 1 call would not, in itself, necessitate emergency driving. “The priority level is a factor to consider but is not generally controlling,” Diaz wrote. “While many Priority 1 calls would warrant emergency driving under our current policy and training, not all do and officers are expected to consider the totality of the circumstances.”
PubliCola has filed a records request the audio from the initial 911 call; SPD categorically denied a separate request for all recorded audio related to the Kandula’s death, citing their ongoing investigation into the incident.
In a conversation with PubliCola last week, SPD Chief Adrian Diaz noted that Dave is a licensed EMT who was headed to the scene of a medical emergency, implying that he was on the way to respond to the reported overdose, not to provide security for the Fire Department. On February 6, the head of the Seattle Fire Fighters Union, Kenny Stuart, expressed frustration about SPD officers getting trained as EMTs and responding to medical emergencies like overdoses directly, saying this was the responsibility of the fire department, not SPD. (It’s a longstanding, ongoing issue.)
“Our EMS delivery system under the Medic One program is arguably the best in the country, and randomly allowing additional EMTs from other city departments to self-dispatch or to perform EMS functions at an incident does not improve or support the level of care we demand from this program,” Stuart wrote. “In fact, it unnecessarily complicates our response and diminishes the service that the public depends on and expects.”
Seattle Fire Department firefighters and paramedics are “the only personnel that are dispatched as EMTs” to medical emergencies, Stuart continued, “and they should be the only personnel who deliver EMS to the people of Seattle. We need our police officers to provide scene security and protect us so we can do our jobs effectively.”
Several years ago, SFD’s medical director told PubliCola the fire department preferred to use rescue breathing—a method to restore breathing in overdose victims without Narcan—followed by intravenous naloxone to facilitate a slower return to normal breathing without putting a person into instant opiate withdrawal. We’ve asked SFD whether this is still the department’s policy, and how the emergence of fentanyl has impacted overdose response, and will update this post when we hear back.
PubliCola has also reached out to Stuart.