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Firefighters could help patrol downtown Asheville as part of pilot program

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Asheville firefighters would take to the streets of downtown on bicycles equipped with medical kits and defibrillators as part of a six-week Community EMT Pilot Program. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

Stakeholders in downtown Asheville have made their voices heard. They want more resources to help maintain a safe and welcoming downtown, especially during the busy months of summer.

In response, the Asheville Fire Department is expected to launch a six-week Community EMT Pilot Program, sometime near the end of July or early August.

The program is designed to evaluate the effectiveness of increasing some public safety resources downtown and will utilize firefighters as a sort of Swiss Army knife of support, integrating roles of ambassador, public safety official, medical responder and law enforcement liaison.

Firefighters would take to the streets of downtown on bicycles equipped with medical kits and defibrillators. Narcan is stocked in each medical kit, which would allow firefighters to address opioid overdoses and other opioid related medical issues.

Firefighters would also be collecting data of buildings in the downtown area for a program called First Due Size-up.

Fire Chief Scott Burnette said the program is ongoing, but this six-week period would rapidly speed up the data collection, which could help save lives.

“A lot of our buildings were built in the 1920s, which is beautiful and it also means they have 1920s fire protection systems,” Burnette said. “So, those features are very important for our firefighters to know before an emergency happens.”

Another role during the pilot program will be to interact daily with business owners in the Central District and South Slope, as well as address needs of the city’s homeless population and offer guidance for local services.

At least one business owner downtown, Michael Napelitano of Manicomio Pizza, doesn’t think the firefighters will help address a concern shared by other downtown business owners he talks to.

“On a rather daily basis I deal with people waiting outside for my customers to ask them for their leftovers,” Napelitano said. “People coming up on my deck or in the actual restaurant asking for money, cigarettes, food, and this is while my customers are eating. They'll ask for slices of pizza out of the pie. Tourists just don't feel comfortable in these situations, and tourists is what keeps this town going.”

Napelitano said he met with more than 20 business owners recently who are not happy about how the issue is being handled.

“I think firefighters are great for fighting fires, and, if they can help some of these people get off opioids, I'm all for it. But I think this is a police issue,” he said.

If firefighters choose to participate, on duty staffing will not be utilized during and participants will be given overtime pay.

Burnette said 13 officials are working to secure external funding for the program, but funding from the city manager’s contingency is available.

The program will be discussed at the Downtown Stakeholders meeting at 8:30 a.m. Friday.

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