Public Safety Agencies Announce Plan for New 911 Triage Team

by Paul Kiefer

(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement) 

By next summer, Seattle’s emergency call dispatchers may have a new crisis response team at their disposal. The new unit, called Triage One, would be housed within the Seattle Fire Department’s Mobile Integrated Health program and tasked with responding to some crisis calls that don’t clearly involve a medical emergency or criminal activity.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan debuted the proposal at a press conference on Friday morning alongside Councilmember Lisa Herbold and the heads of the Seattle Police and Fire Departments, and the newly created Communications and Community Safety Center (CSCC).

The goal of the Triage One team, said Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, is to reduce the city’s reliance on police officers as the default crisis responders. Diaz pointed to “person down” calls—calls about people either asleep or unconscious in public—as an example; at the moment, SPD treats those calls as high-priority, which involves dispatching at least two officers to respond as quickly as possible.

“But a majority of ‘person down’ calls are because someone’s experiencing addiction or a health crisis, and when SPD responds, officers still need to call another agency [for a more appropriate response],” Diaz said. Instead, the city could rely on an unarmed team to respond to those non-criminal emergencies and call for medical assistance, police backup, caseworkers, or other responders after taking stock of the situation.

Triage One would rely heavily on Seattle’s 911 dispatch center, which is now part of the CSCC. According to CSCC Director Chris Lombard, the unit would function as an extension of the dispatch center itself. “911 has always been in a pinch to, in a minute to 90 seconds, decide what’s happening and how to deploy resources to help,” he said. “We see the Triage One system as a way to extend the time available to figure out how to get someone [in crisis] the services they need.” Meanwhile, the CSCC is developing a standardized list of questions for dispatchers to ask 911 callers, ostensibly to streamline emergency calls.

At the moment, the program is still only theoretical; the details of the Triage One team, including its size, makeup, and cost, won’t be resolved until the project receives approval and funding from the city council, Durkan said. She added that the team would ideally be able to respond to roughly 1,000 crisis calls per year, particularly in the greater downtown area during business hours.

That figure resembles the number of calls handled by the fire department’s Health One program, which also routes non-emergency 911 calls to a special team that responds to people with substance abuse or mental health issues or who need social services, but it doesn’t account for all of the roughly 4,300 well-check calls received by 911 dispatchers each year. The new Triage One team would respond to lower-acuity calls than the medical crisis calls that Health One currently deals with, and would have the ability to contact Health One or police if a person needed more urgent attention.

Durkan noted that the creation of the Triage One program would, in theory, complement the growth of Seattle’s other public safety services, including police. Durkan, who leaves office at the end of this year, has opposed efforts to reduce the size of Seattle’s police force. “This program will help us free up police officers’ time,” she said, “but it is no replacement for our efforts to hire and recruit more officers.”

“Triage One” is an extension of a relatively new city naming convention that began with the fire department’s Health One medical response team, which now has a second vehicle called Health Two. The name, which implies that the team would itself play a dispatch or triage role, could still change; members of the mayor’s team reportedly told others at the city to hold off on using the Triage One branding on Friday, although the name came up frequently during the press conference.

Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.

Featured image: Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz (Photo: Paul Kiefer, PubliCola News)

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