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Lifeline law beefed up to better aid those in danger

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A teenager who was unconscious after heavy drinking was rushed to a nearby hospital, but he likely wouldn’t have received any medical treatment if police hadn’t raided the underage party where he was drinking, the county sheriff said.

State lawmakers want to prevent more situations where a person doesn’t get needed medical care, such as what happened last week at a Center Grove area underage drinking party. Legislators changed a law this year that prevents people from getting in trouble if they’re trying to get medical help for a friend who drank too much or overdosed on drugs.

The state lifeline law prevents police from arresting someone under 21 who had been drinking if they called an ambulance for someone who needed medical care. The goal was to encourage people to call an ambulance for a sick friend and not worry if they’re going to get arrested.

Legislators now are expanding the type of situations where the caller and other people with them won’t be prosecuted. The new law also would provide immunity for an underage person who had been drinking but was the victim of a sexual assault or if they witnessed and reported a crime, said Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, who authored the changes.

People convicted of drug crimes also could receive shorter sentences if they were arrested after they called for medical help for another person. The new law will need to be signed by Gov. Mike Pence and, if he signs it, would go into effect July 1.

The goal is to encourage more people to report medical emergencies or crimes immediately without having to fear they’ll be arrested for drinking or doing drugs, Merritt said. The changes being made this year to give immunity to people who witness or are victims of a crime also could aid police officers, since investigating an incident is easier if police are notified immediately, Sheriff Doug Cox said.

The new law also will allow police officers, firefighters or other emergency responders to carry overdose intervention drugs, which can rapidly stop the effects of opiates such as heroin. That drug has been available on ambulances and in hospitals for decades, but allowing more people to carry it could potentially save more lives, Merritt said.

Cox will consider equipping deputies with overdose intervention drugs, depending on the cost and training required. Some county deputies already have defibrillators in their vehicles and also carry gunshot wound treatment kits, so having the anti-overdose drugs would be another way to ensure a person gets the needed care immediately, he said.

The original law, which Merritt authored and took effect in July 2012, only covered medical emergencies due to alcohol. He wrote the law after being approached by several student organizations at Indiana colleges, who proposed the idea as a way to encourage people to call for help and not worry about getting in trouble.

When deputies busted an underage drinking party in Brentridge Estates in the Center Grove area last week, Lt. Matt Rhinehart found a teen on the floor in the basement in front of a sectional couch. The teen didn’t answer when Rhinehart called to him and didn’t move or make any noises when he nudged him, he said. Rhinehart checked to make sure he was still breathing and immediately called for an ambulance.

The teen had passed out, was stable and not in life-threatening danger from alcohol poisoning, White River Township Fire Chief Jeremy Pell said. But being unconscious for any reason is an emergency and anyone who is heavily intoxicated is at risk of choking on their own vomit while unconscious, Pell said. No one was likely looking after the teen, especially because only two people at the party knew him but weren’t sure how to spell his name, Rhinehart said.

A teenager may not be able to recognize if a friend is in serious danger, especially if they’ve been drinking, Pell said. So the lifeline law allows people in those situations to make a good decision and get medical help without legal repercussions, Pell and Cox said.

“I’m not a big fan of people being able to circumvent the law, but I think this is a good one,” Cox said. “You see this on college campuses every day or see something on the national news about a kid who doesn’t wake up the next morning.”

Emergency responders also will have more opportunities to prevent fatal drug overdoses by being allowed to carry and use intervention drugs. Opiates such as heroin slow down a person’s breathing during an overdose, and a drug such as Narcan will quickly jolt a person’s respiratory muscles back into action, Greenwood Fire Department division chief of emergency medical services Darin Hoggatt said.

Heroin has become more widely used in recent years, and overdoses are responsible for hundreds of deaths statewide each year. Saving someone’s life should be the top priority and prosecuting a crime second, Merritt said.

About a year ago, Greenwood ambulances were called to where a group of people were using heroin and who called 911 because their friend was overdosing, Hoggatt said. Before the changes to the lifeline law, those friends would have been arrested for possession of drugs and receive a sentence similar to someone who was caught with heroin in their car or home. The new law would allow a judge to consider that they called for medical help, which could lead to a shorter sentence.

“That’s really the essence of this law is that mistakes shouldn’t end your life and shouldn’t follow you forever,” Merritt said.

Adding protection for victims of crimes, especially in sexual assault cases, was another important update to the law so victims won’t hesitate to call police, Merritt said. The state also will conduct a new study on violent crime against children and sexual assaults to help determine how often they occur, why they go unreported and ways to increase the number of people who do call police.

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