Seattle Fire Dept. expands crisis response while the city waits for new 911 options

Seattle residents have asked city officials to offer more types of crisis response without law enforcement. The College of Mayor and Aldermen has convened a working group on this. Meanwhile, the Seattle Fire Department is expanding its efforts in that direction.

The Seattle Fire Department’s Health One teams launched in 2019. They pair firefighters with case workers to contact people who had contact with the 911 system. And the program is growing – they just added a third unit this year.

Footage from the Seattle Fire Department gives an idea of ​​how the units are deployed. In most cases, it’s not a 911 dispatcher who sends them. Instead, other firefighter EMTs ask their Health One colleagues for follow-up.

One says they treated a woman who was looking for a place to stay, adding: “I don’t know if you can help us with that.”

Another asks them to check on a man who has “been standing here on the sidewalk since yesterday, with nowhere to go”.

A third provides a referral for a woman, adding, “I’d like her to be seen in the hospital. I think she can be convinced if you can spend time and build rapport.”

Spending some time is something Health One teams can provide. They can also investigate each case and see whether people are entitled to benefits or assistance. According to the Seattle Fire Department, most of the people referred to the Health One teams are elderly, without housing and/or have mental or substance use disorders.

Firefighter Matthew Jung is a member of a Health One team. He has to work overtime in addition to his full-time job as a fire engine, but he says this work fits the mission of the fire service.

“I can’t think of a clearer picture of serving our fellow human beings than sitting down next to them on a sidewalk and saying, ‘I’m not going anywhere until we fix this problem,'” he said.

And the problems are complex.

On a recent weekday morning, Jung and caseworker Greg Jensen are sent to check up on a man in North Seattle who doctors say is an alcoholic and refuses to get help with open wounds to his legs. Jung and Jensen drive north to a house near Carkeek Park.

“Hopefully we can find him,” Jung said. “We go to his residence, but they are often in the community, so we may have to work to track him down a bit.”

When they stop at the house, no one answers the door, but a person sitting in the front yard offers them a phone number. Later, a caretaker called Jensen and said they had asked the man to leave the house because he was drinking. So the search continues.

Still, Jensen says showing up to the fire department generates a surprising amount of goodwill.

“They literally and figuratively open doors that wouldn’t be open to case managers who just knock on your door with good intentions,” he explains.

In the wake of the 2020 anti-police protests, members of the public have urged Seattle officials to launch more types of crisis response unrelated to law enforcement. Opinions are divided as to whether these efforts pose security risks.

Bothell Police Chief Ken Seuberlich said police officers and a mental health professional recently made a phone call when a man in crisis was throwing cinder blocks. He said the mental health professional did not feel safe approaching the man until police officers were able to de-escalate the man and calm the man’s behavior.

But in the end, he said the meeting was “a great success.”

“The [mental health professional] I saw the agents de-escalate, and the agents saw the MHP work its magic and transport the individual,” he said.

Mike Manzanarez, president of the King County Police Officers Guild, said non-police responses could be helpful to anyone as long as any security concerns can be addressed.

“It’s worth a try,” he said. “Everything is worth trying right now with the shortage of law enforcement personnel that we have across this country that nobody wants to do this job that much anymore. I think we have to think outside the box.”

Jon Ehrenfeld, who oversees the Health One program at the Seattle Fire Department, says every type of crisis response meets a need, from police to firefighters to social workers. He does think there is room for citizens to handle more crisis calls with proper call screening and training.

“I think there are a lot of exciting opportunities at the 911 level,” he said. “For example, Austin, Texas, now integrates mental health professionals directly into their 911 dispatch. If you call 911 in Austin, Texas, you now hear, ‘Austin 911. Do you need police, fire, medical or mental health?’

Ehrenfeld is part of a group convened by Mayor Harrell’s office, the Alternative Response Team, that is looking at next steps in these efforts.

And Mike Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, says “alternative forms of policing” are a subject of his union’s ongoing collective bargaining with the city.

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