SEATTLE - A Seattle City Council member has a new idea for dealing with the thousands of non-emergency calls that Seattle firefighters currently go to every year: a new mobile health response team.
Council member Sally Bagshaw has proposed spending $500,000 on a pilot program in downtown Seattle.
“The overall system response will really save a ton of money and be a much more humane response,” she said.
The Seattle Fire Department has grappled with how best to deal with low-acuity calls, which are non-emergencies often due to chronic illness, mental illness and substance abuse.
“Every time that a unit goes out for a low-acuity alarm, that unit is out of service and they can't respond to a fire, a car accident, a cardiac arrest, etcetera,” Jon Ehrenfeld, the Seattle Fire Department’s low-acuity alarm program manager, said. “So it’s a really big concern.”
Numbers show about 40 percent of SFD’s medical responses from the last half of last year were for low-acuity calls.
In a story with KIRO 7 last year, Seattle Fire explained how they worked with the King County Mobile Crisis Team, which is staffed with pairs of mental health and chemical dependency professionals, when they needed assistance.
“Just encouraging them to call us when they have somebody that they think would benefit from not going to the hospital and benefit from other services we can provide,” crisis team member Kerianne Hendrickson said.
With firefighters dealing with threats around homeless groups in Pioneer Square, they've been doubling the number of firefighters responding to non-emergency calls there to six.
So having a new team responding, Bagshaw said, would really help free them up to get to other incidents.
“Rather than just sending out the fire truck, sending someone to Harborview, which is a $2,000 a night deal and then send them back out on the street without a plan,” she said, “is that when somebody calls 911, whether it's the individual needing help or not, there will be somebody there that can do a triage.”
How would it work? Someone would report a low-acuity call and a trained medical responder would determine what treatment is needed. A team of two EMTs and a behavioral health social worker would be dispatched, likely in a minivan, instead of a large team of firefighters in two trucks. That patient would get connected to medical care, get assistance scheduling an appointment, or be diverted to a clinic, detox, or sobering center—whatever their circumstances might warrant. Importantly, they would also get connected with a caseworker for follow-up.
The whole call would be handled using specialized software connecting first responders and caseworkers to coordinate responses. Only law enforcement would be able to see criminal information while only medical professionals would be able to see health information.
Bagshaw said similar models have already been rolled out in Fort Worth, Texas; Mesa, Arizona; San Diego, California; and Colorado Springs, Colorado. It’s also been done locally, as close as Kent, Shoreline, and a joint program between Auburn and Federal Way.
Outside the King County courthouse, where there are frequent low-acuity calls, Trevon Chambers said he sees police or fire responding to a call in the vicinity “four or five times out of the week” while he waits for the bus.
“I think that idea would actually be pretty good,” he said of the proposed team. “Because then, the first responders can handle situations that actually need more attention.”
And if it can help firefighters respond to true emergencies faster, well, all the better.
“A lot can happen in five minutes,” Chambers said. “That five minutes could be them getting somebody, stopping a fire, like anything, honestly.”
It's unclear if Seattle Fire would continue working with the King County Mobile Crisis Team in other parts of the city.
KIRO 7 will continue tracking the proposal as city budget discussions continue.
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