Calif. city to have FD take over mental health calls, hire teams of EMTs, outreach workers

Oakland officials also plan to send non-police responders to other nonviolent calls such as public intoxication calls and wellness checks

Annie Sciacca
East Bay Times

OAKLAND, Calif. — The City Council voted unanimously to establish a pilot program that would have the fire department send civilian outreach workers, emergency medical technicians or other non-police staff for emergencies involving mental health crises or other non-violent crimes instead of police.

Two weeks after the City Council decided it wanted to explore having the fire department run the long-discussed program, it voted unanimously during its Tuesday meeting to begin implementing it.

The Oakland City Council has approved a pilot program under the Oakland Fire Department that will have EMTs and outreach workers handle mental health crisis calls.
The Oakland City Council has approved a pilot program under the Oakland Fire Department that will have EMTs and outreach workers handle mental health crisis calls. (Photo/Oakland Fire Department)

"We are developing a model that's unique to Oakland, provides a public health response to mental health crises, and centers a community, civilian response to these crises," said Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who introduced the resolution and ordinance along with Councilmember Dan Kalb. "A Community Advisory Board will ensure ongoing engagement in this program and will be led by those with experience providing mental health support to survivors of state violence and other impacted communities."

Under the council's decision, the city administration is tasked with setting up the Mobile Assistance Community Responders Of Oakland program — often referred to as MACRO — and to house it in the Oakland Fire Department. The city administrator will create a position for a program manager that can run the pilot program, and explore whether to contract with Alameda County for mental health workers and the other logistics for the program, such as staffing.

The pilot will last a year and will first be tested in East Oakland, expanding to West Oakland and the Fruitvale district if possible within the time frame.

Kalb said that if it goes well, the program could become a "robust" agency within the fire department.

"I think this is very exciting," Kalb said. "We are going to do it, and I hope we become a model for the country."

The decision also earned support from Oaklanders who have long been discussing alternative responses to police.

"It has taken way too long to get here," said Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police Terror Project and the Executive Director of the Justice Teams Network.

Brooks and others have urged for such a program for years — the Anti Police Terror Project started its own free non-police response to people experiencing mental health episodes, substance abuse crises or domestic violence, called MH First Oakland. But the idea has picked up steam at the city government level in the wake of high-profile police killings of Black Americans and other people of color in recent years.

In 2019, the Oakland City Council authorized paying the Urban Strategies Council $40,000 to come up with a feasibility analysis of creating a non-police response team model such as the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets — CAHOOTS — program that the city of Eugene, Oregon, has successfully operated for three decades.

Until recently, Oakland administrators had been preparing to get the council's vote to select a nonprofit to operate such a program, but last month those that had been bidding for the job pulled out following a contentious public safety committee debate.

Since then, the focus has shifted to having the city pilot it directly instead of a third party, and at an early March meeting, the City Council, along with dozens of public speakers, decided to have the fire department take it on.

The fire department already responds to emergencies 24 hours a day and has the infrastructure for dispatching teams and carrying needed equipment such as radios, so taking on this program is a natural fit, they said.

The plan is not for firefighters to simply take on the duties on top of their firefighting work. Rather, the program would hire new civilian employees, likely including emergency medical technicians, who would respond to nonviolent calls, such as for "people who are disturbing the peace, intoxicated on the street, engaging in disorderly conduct, or involved in nonviolent incidents at homeless encampments as well as requests for wellness checks," according to a report from the city administration.

A report conducted by AH Datalytics and commissioned by the Anti Police Terror Project found that medical calls added up to 10% of the total calls that police respond to, and they spend a median of just under 42 minutes on each of those calls, which include mental health crises and welfare checks.

Moving those calls to the new civilian team would free up police resources to focus on gun violence, Fortunato Bas said.

But there are still a lot of details to work out, including the job descriptions for the program, what hours it would operate, and what the practices would be for handing off situations that do become violent.

The city memo from the fire department said it is imperative that there is ongoing crisis and conflict de-escalation training for workers.

There are some precedents to observe. Crisis workers for Eugene's CAHOOTS program told NPR last year they occasionally call in police when a person is in immediate danger or poses a threat to someone else. It doesn't happen often; out of 24,000 calls in 2019, they called police for backup about 150 times.

It's also unclear how soon exactly the program could be up and running. The city memo estimates it could take several months after creating the position descriptions, recruiting staff, and bargaining with labor unions over contracts.

But many have urged the city to do it as quickly as possible.

In a matter of months, San Francisco started a pilot of its own version of non-police responses in November as a collaboration between that city's public health and fire departments, with help from its Department of Emergency Management.

There is also the question of how to sustain the program after the pilot period, if it's successful.

There was $1.85 million earmarked for contracting the work to a third party, that could instead be used for the fire department to pilot it, but the city would have to find another revenue source to operate the program permanently or expand it.

That money could be redirected from the police department budget in the future. Creating the civilian crisis response teams is among the many recommendations proposed by the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. The task force was formed last year to explore how the city could reallocate police department funds to other services to improve public safety.

The ordinance to establish the MACRO program in the fire department will require a second reading before it is fully authorized, and a final vote on the issue is scheduled for April 20. City Administrator Ed Reiskin will return to council to provide updates on the creation of the program.

Fortunato Bas expressed optimism for its future.

"This alternative program will show that we can improve community safety and save lives."


(c)2021 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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