Come the fall, Seattle will launch a new mobile response unit in the downtown area to care for people suffering from behavioral health issues, substance abuse disorders and other chronic health conditions in order to cut down on calls to emergency services.
The Health One team will include firefighters and social workers, and will respond to calls that are considered “low- acuity,” meaning they require less intensive care.
The full scope and specs of the program have yet to be determined. One unit can’t handle the nearly 30,000 calls that the Fire Department fielded for low-acuity conditions in 2018, said Jon Erhenfeld, the low-acuity alarm program manager with the Seattle Fire Department.
Health One will be initially limited to the downtown core, where many of the calls are concentrated, Erhenfeld said.
“We’re very intentional in calling it a pilot,” Erhenfeld said. “It’s a proof of concept.”
Health One will operate in conjunction with other specialized units such as the mobile crisis team. The mobile crisis team deals with severe behavioral health issues, Erhenfeld said, and there will be an adjustment period where the two figure out which potential patients will be best suited to which team.
“We know that right off the bat there will be overlap. For the more acute behavioral health issues, there’s the mobile crisis team,” Erhenfeld said. “[Health One has] the comparative advantage in medical care.”
Ultimately, the goal is to improve options available for people who are in need of assistance, but not necessarily in crisis. Getting people off the street and into even temporary shelter will be a sign of success, said Fire Chief Harold Scoggins at a press conference.
“Success will be anybody that we can move out of an unfortunate situation,” Scoggins said.
According to the city, 42 percent of the 70,000 medical calls to the Fire Department in 2018 were classified as “low-acuity.” It’s both expensive and ineffective to roll out a fire or ambulance crew to calls like these, Scoggins said.
“Many of the low-acuity calls received by the Fire Department are related to homelessness, mental health, social needs, drug and alcohol use and chronic medical issues,” Scoggins said. “These are healthcare needs that a typical emergency medical response unit is not well equipped to address.”
What, exactly, the Health One team will look like is uncertain, but one option would be a team of firefighters paired with a social worker in a sports utility vehicle (SUV). That type of car would be far less costly than an ambulance, but still have the capacity to transport a client.
The new unit was championed by Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who helped pin down $475,000 in the city’s 2019 budget to pay for the initiative. The Fire Department kicked in an additional $25,000.
The official launch of Health One is still months away. The Fire Department will need to provide additional training for its designated firefighters and find a social worker. The Fire Department will also need to write policies and procedures that govern the unit.
Still, there is optimism that the new unit will be better for the homeless community and the city as a whole, Ehrenfeld said.
“We have so few options for them,” Ehrenfeld said. “The mobile unit will be great. It will expand the palette of what’s available.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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