A different 911 response: Health One expanding to South Seattle

SEATTLE — South Seattle is getting a different kind of 911 response. The city’s “Health One” program is expanding to serve people who don’t need to go to the hospital or be arrested, but still need some help.

It also means Seattle police won’t need to respond to certain calls, particularly mental health calls.

Seattle already has two Health One units staffed with unarmed first responders, and the third will be added in early 2022 to specifically serve South and Central Seattle, based out of Mount Baker Fire Station 30.

The city says the program’s expansion is in no way stripping police officers of responsibilities, but rather finding new ways to help.

The third Health One rig is packed full of stuff you might not expect, like extra blankets, toe warmers, clothes, food, and even stuffed animals. It’s all equipment for outreach.

“We’ve purchased some self-heating meals. I gave one out last night to someone who was refusing shelter,” said Roger Webber, a 22-year veteran of the Seattle Fire Department.

The unit is staffed with two firefighters/EMTs, and a social worker. Many of their calls involve people in crisis — about 50 percent of their calls are responding to people who are homeless.

The teams are able to spend more time with each case than a traditional 911 call.

“What that does is it allows them to start to work the problem, to help the person through the critical situation,” said Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins.

Riley De Hoog is one of the caseworkers on a Health One unit.

“We might get a call for someone experiencing homelessness, who also may be having some really minor medical issues, but they are in distress,” De Hoog said.

Beyond the initial response, Health One also follows up. For example, the team might help someone book an appointment with a doctor and on a later date, help them get to the doctor’s office.

“We are busy and we’re going all over the city,” De Hoog said.

Webber admits it’s tough work.

“I’ve told people this is the hardest job I’ve ever done emotionally,” he said.

But Webber says he can see their teams moving the needle, getting through to people who need the most help.

“I did nine months on this vehicle, I went back to my ladder truck, and I’ve signed up for another six to nine months (on Health One) because I believe in this,” Webber said.

In the past year, several roles previously under SPD like parking enforcement and 911 dispatch, have been moved out from under Seattle police to other city departments. City leaders say Health One is different.

“What it does not do is reduce the need for police. In order for Seattle to be safe, we need deployable officers in the range of 1,400 officers. But we don’t want to have to just have police respond. We want to have more tools,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.

“We are working with the police department to identify calls that they agree that they don’t need to respond to,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the Public Safety committee.

Health One is a tool first responders say makes a difference.

“We are actually connecting people more where they need to go,” Webber said.

The need is so great, Herbold said there are already talks in the city council to add the fourth and fifth “Health One” units in 2022.