Caribou Fire and Ambulance chief Scott Susi (left) shows off one of the new small ballistic vests purchased through a donation from Aroostook Savings and Loan, while the bank's president John Swanberg looks on. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou Fire and Ambulance is the first department in Aroostook County to purchase bulletproof vests for ambulance workers.

Though several departments in more urban southern Maine towns have purchased similar vests for various other reasons, Caribou’s decision came about due to The County’s worsening opioid epidemic.

Caribou Fire and Ambulance Chief Scott Susi said the need for bulletproof vests has become more crucial as drug overdose calls have gone from occasional to almost daily occurrences over the past three years — always with the potential for violence.

“When you revive someone, they’re unpredictable,” Susi said. “They might flail their arms or grab an object on the floor. You never really know what they’re going to do.”

His department’s decision comes at a time when law enforcement, mental health and recovery experts in The County are increasing discussions on how to help people with substance use disorder and prevent overdose deaths.

According to data from Maine EMS, there were 22 EMS calls in Aroostook in 2020 in which providers administered naloxone to revive a person who had overdosed on opioids. There have been 37 such calls in Aroostook so far in 2021.

Though Aroostook saw far fewer overdose-related calls than the more populous Cumberland County, which had 160 in 2020 and 138 in 2021 — Susi said that the prevalence of opioid abuse in the Caribou region has only gotten worse.

“In our region, we see more overdose patients than we do COVID patients,” Susi said.

Caribou Fire and Ambulance purchased 16 vests for the entire crew several weeks ago, thanks to a   donation from a local bank. The department had tried to include the money in the city’s budget for two years in a row before the bank stepped up.

Although no ambulance workers have been seriously injured during overdose calls thus far, the vests will protect them from being wounded if a patient attempts to harm them with a handgun, knife or other sharp weapon, Susi said.

Caribou joins departments in southern Maine that have purchased bulletproof vests due to increased concerns about violence locally and nationwide.

Yarmouth Fire & Rescue Chief Michael Robitaille said that his department purchased the vests eight years ago after seeing a national uptick in mass shootings.

In recent years, Yarmouth, which is about 12 miles north of Portland in Cumberland County, has experienced an increase in calls related to mental health crises, including suicide attempts or other situations involving weapons. In contrast with rural areas — such as Caribou — overdose calls have mainly occurred on a weekly or biweekly basis.

“We’re dealing more with calls that larger cities have dealt with,” Robitaille said.

The nearby town of Brunswick, also in Cumberland County, bought bulletproof vests two years ago, with funds from a federal Department of Homeland Security grant. The fire department purchased the vests as a precautionary measure due to the national cases involving an active shooter — someone killing or actively trying to kill a number of people in a confined area.

EMS workers in Brunswick are only required to wear the vests during calls that involve law enforcement, according to Fire Chief Kenneth Brillant. The town has seen increased overdose calls, but so far there have been no situations that have prompted ambulance workers to put on bulletproof vests.

“We want our providers to be protected if they ever find themselves in potentially violent situations,” Brillant said.