Swamped with ‘non-emergency’ 911 calls, Seattle Fire testing new response team for homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health issues — UPDATE: Capitol Hill part of plan

Homelessness and basic human health needs are swamping Seattle’s emergency services. A pilot program for the Seattle Fire Department will create a new team to handle the thousands of 911 calls that need real responses but aren’t emergency medical situations.

“As our city grows, our ability to deliver emergency and non-emergency responses must also grow. We pioneered Medic One, which became the gold standard in emergency health response. Non-emergency cases need a similar response in our growing urban environment,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said Tuesday about Health One, a new, $500,000 program focused on downtown Seattle and “some adjacent residential neighborhoods” set to launch in coming months to create a SFD team focused on responding to substance abuse, non-emergency medical issues, helping people access needed city services.

In 2018, 42% of SFD’s medical calls were deemed “low acuity” calls — calls where the department dispatched its resources that “generally resulted in no action or a non-emergency transport.”

“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,” Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said. “These are healthcare needs that a typical emergency medical response unit is not well equipped to address. We can now look beyond the traditional method of transporting patients to an emergency room, and connect them with appropriate services.”

The $500,000 funding will power the pilot for a year, creating a “a mobile integrated health program” within Seattle Fire. SFD joins Seattle Police and King County Sheriff in creating special units to handle the finer points of first response in an urban environment. City officials say the new Health One effort will complement existing programs already in place such as the Seattle Police Mobile Crisis Unit and County-supported Mobile Crisis Team.

While the Health One pilot will focus on the downtown core, its work will likely be felt on the edges of Capitol Hill if not farther across the neighborhood. A Seattle Fire spokesperson was checking on details for the pilot program’s initial boundaries.

UPDATE 9:09 AM: Capitol Hill is, indeed, being planned to be part of the pilot. “Our expectation right now is that we will cover Capitol Hill as well, but the precise boundaries have not yet been drawn and may not be finalized until after the pilot launch (depending on early data),” a Seattle Fire spokesperson tells CHS.


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