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Calif. city plans to run non-police mental health response program through fire department

The Oakland fire union president supported moving the program to the fire department instead of an independent organization

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The city of Oakland plans to move forward with a non-police mental health response program run through the Oakland Fire Department.

Photo/Oakland Fire Department

Sarah Ravani
San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Oakland City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to direct staff to design a pilot program to dispatch counselors and paramedics from the city’s Fire Department to mental health crises instead of police officers.

The plan is a shift from the original idea of contracting with community-based organizations to run the program independently.

The council also ordered the administration to explore options including contracting with Alameda County staff and health specialists or temporary staff within the Fire Department to run the program — called Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland, known as MACRO. In addition, the city administration will look into contracting with community organizations qualified in mental health outreach.

“We know that there are very high expectations for this program given the urgent need, and I hope that the city can deliver,” said Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who is also the co-chair of the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, which has a goal of cutting the police budget in half and shifting the money to social services.

Bas and Council Member Dan Kalb introduced the motion that was voted on. The city administration will give a progress report at the March 16 council meeting. At that time, they could also seek council approval on legislation needed to expedite the program.

Nearly nine months ago, Oakland set aside $1.85 million to fund MACRO as part of its effort to rethink public safety, but the program has struggled to get off the ground after two community organizations competing for the contract pulled out.

On Tuesday, City Administrator Ed Reiskin cautioned it could take longer to launch a program within the city’s Fire Department rather than moving forward with a community-based organization.

“Every city staffer, elected official, union member, community member I’ve talked to believes that MACRO is a good idea,” he said. “We are 100% on board with implementing this in any way the council directs.”

Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan said the city’s Fire Department is equipped to run the program because the department already has a 911 dispatch system and responds to calls 24 hours a day.

Kaplan noted that the initial launch of MACRO should offer services 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each two-person dispatch crew would include a paramedic and a civilian outreach position. The program will first serve East and West Oakland.

Zac Unger, president of Oakland Firefighters Local 55, supports moving MACRO to the Fire Department.

Kalb noted that the $1.85 million could fund the pilot program. The council will have to identify other funds to maintain it permanently.

Dozens of people spoke during public comment in support of moving MACRO to the Fire Department.

Anne Janks, a member of the Coalition for Police Accountability, called on the council to launch the program immediately.

“Just implement the program as it was designed by Oaklanders for Oakland,” she said.


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