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Mesa, Ariz., Seeks to Expand 911 Mental Health Dispatching

City staff told Mesa City Council at its March 11 session that their 911 mental health diversion program is succeeding and they would like to expand the program using $2.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

911 Call
(TNS) - Since 2019, Mesa 911 dispatchers have routed 4,000 emergency calls related to mental health away from police, fire and medical services and over to behavioral health professionals.

If proposed upgrades to the program are implemented this summer, those numbers could be higher in the future.

City staff Mesa City Council at its March 11 study session that their 911 mental health diversion program is succeeding and they would like to expand the program using $2.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Several council members expressed support for the program and encouraged staff to continue planning the expansion.

Crisis mental health care touches on two of Mesa residents’ biggest community concerns: homelessness and mental health in general. They were the No. 1 and No. 3 most concerning issues, respectively, for Mesa residents in a poll conducted by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute of Public Policy last spring. Human trafficking was No. 2.

Staff told Council that diverting select 911 calls to mental health professionals was less expensive than sending police for certain situations and provides better service to people in crisis.

“We believe this is a program that, while efficient, (also) provides the highest level of service to the citizen,” Assistant City Manager John Pombier said.

Mayor John Giles remarked that currently, behavioral health appeared to represent a large share of the workload on Mesa’s officers.

“The times that I’ve gone on ride-alongs with the police department, it’s struck me that everything that we did on those calls was either tied to mental health or substance abuse,” he said.

Mesa dove into connecting 911 callers with mental health services in 2019 through a partnership with Tempe-based nonprofit Solari Crisis and Human Services.

In the first stage of the partnership, emergency dispatchers trained to identify calls that could be effectively handled by Solari’s crisis phone line or mobile teams. In what city staff described as a pioneering innovation among U.S. cities, Mesa adopted an official policy stating that dispatchers could route certain call codes to Solari.

Now, when someone calls 911 because of suicidal thoughts, dispatchers have the option of patching the caller to Solari’s crisis line or asking Solari to send a two-person mobile team to the caller’s location.

Dispatchers “have three baskets now — police, fire and behavioral health,” Pombier told Council. “This allows us to send the appropriate response. It could be all three, or it could be any one of the three.”

Solari Chief Operating Officer Andrew Erwin told council that roughly 50% of the crisis calls they receive from 911 can be helped over the phone alone.

When in-person mental health attention is needed — and desired by the caller — Solari deploys a mobile team. Erwin said the mobile teams include a master’s level mental health clinician and bachelor’s-level clinician, and each team includes a member who has completed emergency medical technician certification.

“These are people that have experience generally in outpatient settings,” Erwin said. “Crisis work is a very special type of work.”

Many cities across the U.S. are interested in sending social workers to non-criminal 911 calls, but a hurdle that is being worked out — which was on the minds of some council members — is the team members’ safety.

Erwin told council the Mesa mobile teams are having good outcomes, and he is not aware of any incidents. He said that law enforcement accompanies the mobile teams on fewer than 1% of calls.

Erwin suggested the key to success was careful selection of which calls are diverted to mental health teams.

“The policy we built is very honed in to the type of support we deliver,” he said.

Phoenix is hiring scores of people to take similar burdens off officers — a critical move since staffing levels in Phoenix PD have been in freefall for a year as the number of new recruits pales in comparison to officers who are retiring or leaving for a different job.

In the first year of the partnership, Solari staff said they diverted 369 emergency calls from the Mesa fire and police departments. That number rose steadily in subsequent years, with 1,125 calls diverted in 2020 and 1,867 in 2021.

Last summer, Mesa and Solari deepened the partnership by “co-locating” Solari staff with 911 dispatchers at the Mesa Police Communications Center for about 20 hours per week. Embedded Solari staff confer with dispatchers or listen in on calls to help decide if mental health resources are the best response.

Solari said mental health diversions from 911 have increased 175% since they started embedding at the communications center.

City staff and Solari think they can get the numbers even higher by using ARPA funds to create mobile response teams dedicated to Mesa, reducing response times.

Currently, about 30 behavioral health response teams serve the entire Phoenix-metro area, Solari staff said. Because of their wide service area, mobile team response times are currently about 30 minutes on average.

Pombier said having Mesa-focused teams with faster response times might lead police and fire to request mental health assistance in the field more frequently, since many calls are recognized as being primarily mental health-related once officers are on the scene.

Faster response times will encourage firefighters and police to utilize the teams, since time is often critical.

The Mesa Police Department expressed support for building on the partnership, saying “the co-location crisis response model allows us to get a mental health professional in touch with a person in crisis, or in need of mental health care faster.”

“Additionally, mental health crisis calls are not usually criminal in nature, so a police officer would not need to respond, making that police officer available to handle criminal calls for service,” it added.

Pombier thinks Mesa’s approach has been successful because they have integrated a third party partner into their existing emergency systems, rather than trying to build a mental health care system from scratch.

“We took the unnatural step of starting with the community providers and said, ‘We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, how do we do this right?’ It’s been a great partnership all the way through this process, where we are continually updating how we do things,” Pombier said.

“Mesa’s really the cutting edge of this,” said Matthew Moody, Solari director of contact center operations. “Mesa saw the way forward in my opinion, (on) what is going to be the model for the rest of the country, which is, let’s have this separate entity that specializes in this.”


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