Seattle will launch a new team of first responders later this year to handle non-emergency calls downtown, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said Tuesday.
Two firefighters with special training and a social worker will staff the “Health One” unit, which will respond to calls involving people dealing with behavioral crises, substance-abuse issues, chronic or less-acute medical issues and social-services needs, Durkan and Scoggins said.
The team will serve Seattle’s “most vulnerable residents,” allow most of the city’s firefighters to concentrate on high-stakes emergency work and hopefully reduce 911 call volumes by helping people responsible for frequent calls obtain long-term assistance, the mayor and fire chief said at a news conference outside Fire Station 10 downtown. Scoggins hopes to have the unit up and running by Oct. 1, he said.
“I’m very bullish on this, as you can tell,” Durkan told reporters. “This is super important.”
As homelessness has grown in Seattle, the 911 system has had to cope with more calls about people struggling on the streets, city leaders have noted.
Last year, 42 percent of 911 medical calls routed to the Fire Department were deemed “low acuity” calls. While there were more than 30,000 such calls, the trucks or aid vehicles dispatched in response usually resulted in no action by the department or in non-emergency transports by ambulance providers to hospitals.
The department expects the new team to respond to about 1,000 calls in its first year, sometimes directing people to homeless shelters and other social services. Durkan described Health One as a pilot program, saying additional units could be added to cover other areas.
Unlike conventional Fire Department teams, which try to resolve calls as quickly as possible, the Health One unit will stay with people in distress “as long as it takes,” Scoggins said. The approach could take some pressure off Harborview Medical Center, where many low-acuity patients are now sent, Durkan said.
The city’s 911 dispatchers will decide whether to rout calls to conventional Fire Department teams or to the Health One unit, Scoggins said. Conventional firefighter teams also will be able to call in the Health One unit, he said.
“This is going to give us more options to serve the community in a better way,” the fire chief said.
All Seattle firefighters are trained as emergency medical technicians. The Health One firefighters will receive some additional training related to working with people in crisis.
The Fire Department will dedicate one vehicle to the new unit, which will respond during business hours in and around downtown, Scoggins said. That vehicle may be an ambulance or a Chevrolet Suburban, he said.
Kelli Wimbley-Dinh, who owns a barbershop at Third Avenue and James Street near Pioneer Square, has some doubts about the Health One idea.
Though she’s grown accustomed to seeing people behaving unusually or slumped on the sidewalk and knows they aren’t always in grave danger, “it’s tricky” to be certain, she said.
Asking bystanders to help dispatchers distinguish between emergency and non-emergency situations could deter people from calling 911, Wimbley-Dinh said.
Someone the business owner once dialed 911 for recently died, she said. “You don’t know when it’s catching up to someone or when it’s just another pass-out,” she said.
The president of Seattle’s firefighters union hailed the effort, however. Kenny Stuart expects the Health One team to benefit homeless people, make downtown safer and allow most firefighters “to focus on what we do best,” he said.
The Health One team will cost $500,000 this year, Durkan said. City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who has pushed for a new approach to low-acuity calls, sponsored a budget amendment last November that added $475,000 for the unit.
The Fire Department intends to track outcomes from calls handled by Health One to determine whether the unit is helping people and reducing calls to 911, Scoggins said. A department-employed social worker already has been able to trim call volumes by working with repeat patients, he said.