Santa Barbara County first responders have broadened the local battle with the country’s opioid epidemic, with Sheriff’s Department patrol officers now carrying naloxone, a drug used to immediately reverse the effects of opioid overdose.

A recent change by the California Legislature to the state’s health and safety code opened the door to law enforcement carrying naloxone for use in the field.

Other first responders such as medics and the county Fire Department have been carrying naloxone as part of standard protocol for years, said Jennie Simon, a nurse and performance improvement coordinator with the county’s Emergency Medical Services Agency, which coordinated the new program for patrol officers.

Earlier this year, the policies and protocols were established for law enforcement use, and personnel training was held.

Simon said Santa Barbara is one of the first in the state to implement such a program at the county level.

The drug, commonly referred to by its brand name, Narcan, is administered in the field by first responders through a nasal spray. The device, Simon said, resembles a nasal spray bottle one can get over the counter, and contains only one dose.

Sheriff’s Department Commander Craig Bonner said 120 deputies now carry the kits, and in a couple weeks’ time, about 130 will have them, including some who are stationed at specific posts, such as in the courts.

“There’s a good potential that (stationed officers) might run into a situation,” he said.

Deputies responding to overdoses has been “an occasional thing,” Bonner added.

“In the past, we would co-respond deputies to overdoses, but we did so knowing that they don’t have that capability,” he said. “Moving forward, we make sure our dispatch knows that our deputies have that capability.”

It will become more likely, Bonner said, that dispatch will “check and see if one of our deputies is closer than the paramedics, and then we will respond those personnel to those patients.”

During an opioid overdose, the victim’s breathing slows until it stops completely.

Naloxone takes two to five minutes to begin blocking those effects, according to the county Public Health Department.

John Doyel, the head of the county Behavioral Wellness Department’s Alcohol and Drug program, explained that the drug restores respiration and prevents brain injuries by completely blocking opioids’ effects in the brain and forces the recipient into a complete withdrawal.

“Naloxone has no potential for abuse and has no known adverse effects on persons who are not experiencing an opioid overdose,” the Public Health Department said in its announcement of the Sheriff’s program.

Simon said that Narcan is most commonly thought of as an antidote to heroin overdoses, but is utilized everywhere from an elderly person accidentally taking too many pain killers to someone who has tried to take his own life.

“It’s a very standard part of our protocol and approach,” she said.

According to the Sheriff-Coroner’s Office, opioids were present in about two-thirds of overdose deaths in Santa Barbara County last year. Doyel estimated that the county has lost an average of around 50 people a year to opioids.

According to county data, responders used Narcan in 193 overdose cases in 2015, and saw 58 deaths where opioids were found in the victim’s system.

Last year, Narcan was used 265 times, though the number of deaths dropped to 49.

Simon said the reason for the jump in Narcan dispensation has yet to be analyzed, but posited that paramedics could be more adept now at providing the drug as it becomes more commonly used, or that more people could be exhibiting the symptoms that prompt responders to dispense it.

Using naloxone, “we’ve saved over 50 lives so far” this year, Doyel said.

He noted, however, that the number is likely higher since naloxone use is so widespread that those who dispense it in emergencies don’t always file the paperwork to report it.

“Oh yes, without question,” Doyel said when asked whether that figure will now go up. “Especially now that the sheriff’s has it.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.