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Putting Mental Health First: SRVFPD's Firefighter Response Program

By Kristin Withrow posted 05-29-2024 04:36 PM


By Kristin Withrow, CSDA Communications Specialist

San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District (SRVFPD) has implemented a Behavioral Health Response Program that puts firefighters first in line to respond to calls involving mental health where it has been determined there is no immediate danger to the patient or others. The program is called Firefighter First Response. It marks a departure from the traditional response of police first with firefighter response as backup when warranted.

“Our Behavioral Health Firefighter First Response Program is intended to dial down the temperature of the situation. By taking a less authoritative, less controlling, less confrontational approach, you actually will have more control by giving the patient a sense they are in control,” stated SRVFPD Chief Paige Meyer.

The program began as an exploration of the response system and mental health response training that included de-escalation tactics for over 200 staff members at SRVFPD and the San Ramon Police Department. Once training was complete, phase two of the program involved routing specific types of calls to the Contra Costa Crisis Center.  The Contra Costa Crisis Center receives calls directly from the Dispatch Center providing these patients with mental health support. The Contra Costa Crisis Center is the 988 crisis hotline established by Assembly Bill 988 (Bauer-Kahan) that was signed by Governor Newsom in 2022.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, “988 will connect callers with around-the-clock intervention, including mobile crisis support teams staffed by mental health professionals and trained peers. Mental health crisis services and alternatives to calling 911 can be an effective alternative to a law enforcement response, provide an opportunity to effectively co-respond with mental health-law enforcement teams, and divert people with mental illness away from criminal justice system involvement.”

The third phase of the program went into effect on October 2, 2023 and establishes a Firefighter First Response with San Ramon Police staged nearby. Calls that do not involve life threatening emergencies or threats to public safety are transferred seamlessly to the 988 Contra Costa Crisis Center for telephonic intervention-suicide prevention and, when warranted, referral to in-person services.  When a Firefighter First Response is dispatched, fire district personnel initiate first contact with the patient quickly.

“We have developed a truly groundbreaking approach to providing the right care at the right time to those experiencing a mental health crisis with a rapid response within 7 minutes of receiving a call,” stated Chief Meyer.

SRVFPD is confident that the implementation of the Behavioral Health Firefighter First Response Program has improved the outcomes for behavioral health incidents in the region; including patient experience and referral to 988 crisis assistance when appropriate, patient outcomes, and system-wide efficiency. In its first four months, between October 2023 and February 2024, the fire district utilized the Firefighter First Program 16 times and transferred 6 calls directly to 988.  This accounted for 24% of all behavioral calls the Fire District received during that time.

Chief Meyer noted, “Our ultimate goal is to educate our residents about alternative mental health resources in an effort to reduce and divert them to find the best solution for their individual needs.  We believe this innovative program will result in the best possible outcome for the patient, their families, and our first responders.”

emergency medical kit in street with fire emt truck in background