REDDING, Calif. - When he began his career as a first responder in 1993, Redding Fire Captain Steve Cramer never imagined he would be dealing with an opioid epidemic as bad as the one the Northstate is facing today.
It's a quiet Wednesday afternoon at Station 5. Cramer is poised but relaxed, ready to respond to the first tone of the alarm. The rest of the crew sits behind us, listening closely to what he has to say.
Cramer began his career as a first responder in 1993 as an EMT and then a Paramedic with North Valley Ambulance, now known as AMR. He went on to work for the Anderson Fire Department before moving to the Redding Fire Department almost 17 years ago.
While most people would be frustrated or angry when describing the problem, Cramer calmly talked about the influx of heroin he's seen, saying it's something his crew deals with on a daily basis.
"We weren't seeing anything like what we're seeing now. We're seeing more heroin than I've ever seen over 24 years," said Cramer.
Cramer said most of the calls they go on are for people who accidentally use more heroin than they should because every dose is different.
"Usually when they're overdosing, it's not because they tried more," he said. "Whatever they have been using takes a certain amount to get them high and because there is no regulation on it, maybe the next dose they get hasn't been cut as much as the last so while a half a CC got them high the last time, a half a CC will kill them this time because there's more actual drug in the dose the second time."
Redding Fire engines do not carry Narcan, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses, so firefighters only option is it to use a mask to help force air into the patient's lungs until the paramedics, who do carry the life saving drug, arrive.
Cramer said having to respond to calls like this on a regular basis is frustrating but added that there doesn't seem to be a good answer to the problem.
"A person who is addicted has to have something major happen before they are going to change. Whether that is a religious experience or a 'realizing I could have died' experience," said Cramer. "One of the things I've always said is it would be great if we could video of some of these people before they get woken up by the Narcan. Let's see your mom being freaked out. Let's see what you're doing to your whole family. And let's see you not breathing. Then, let's play that back the next time you want to do your heroin."
Cramer said he believes the City of Redding has a higher than average number of people who are addicts, for a city of this size and demographics.
"It does get frustrating. It does grate on you some," he said. "We ran over 3,500 calls out of [Station 5] last year and it does get frustrating that there is such a high percentage of the calls that are some sort of abuse of the system and seeing that element on a regular basis."
Cramer said although the shock of it all seems to have worn off, the crisis has impacted how he goes about his personal life and the conversations he has with his two children.
"It's definitely given some opportunity to talk about life decisions," he says. "Also, just with the violence that you see around people that are addicted, just educating [my children] on what to watch for when they're out in public and how to guard themselves against theft."
Cramer added that even going out in public with his children opens doors for conversation.
"We will see people in public that I personally know because I've been on multiple calls for them and I have that talk with [my kids] about how when that guy was your age, I guarantee you he wasn't thinking 'I would love to live in a park addicted to drugs' but at some point they tried it for the first time and their life was changed that day," said Cramer.
As we wrapped up our conversation I asked Cramer if there was one opioid-related call that has stuck with him throughout his career. After several seconds of deep thought and silence, Cramer responded, "There's a lot of them."