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News / Health / Clark County Health

Clark-Cowlitz rescuers take ‘more human’ approach to those in mental health crises

New unit pairs fire agency workers with mental health experts to identify people's needs

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 11, 2023, 6:05am

A few weeks ago, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue was called to help a person experiencing homelessness who was sleeping in an unsafe area.

When they arrived on scene, rescue workers determined the person was having a mental health crisis.

In previous situations, they might have referred the person to a nearby hospital. But thanks to a new pilot project coined the Co-Response Unit, rescue workers and mental health experts were able to identify the person’s primary need: to be reconnected with his sister who lived in the area.

“We called her, and she had actually been looking for him for years. But he didn’t know that. So she came down to him and was wanting to get him into services near her,” said Jeanie Wadiak, a behavioral health specialist on the co-response team. “We were able to reconnect him with family and hopefully get him off the streets permanently.”

This is just one of the success stories that have emerged from the first month of the collaborative program facilitated by Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue, Carelon Behavioral Health and SeaMar Community Health Centers. The program aims to address the growing demand for services surrounding mental health.

“There’s been a growing need in the community for folks that need mental and behavioral health services. And oftentimes, those folks end up in a last resort where they’re calling 911,” said fire rescue Division Chief Mike Jackson.

About 20 percent of calls made to emergency services involve someone in a mental health crisis. But many dispatched workers are not equipped with the time, training or resources needed to not only de-escalate a situation but also follow up to rectify any future incident.

“Firefighters and paramedics have a lot of great skills in helping out those in medical emergencies. But what we don’t have is the training in dealing with mental health emergencies. And it’s left us at times with the inability to get people in need with the right resource at the right time,” said Fire Chief John Nohr.

The new partnership hopes to fill the gap by teaming mental health experts with seasoned paramedics to respond to behavioral health-related calls. The collaboration will also help keep other resources available for emergency response.

Currently, the response team has two members, but it will double in size next month, according to Jackson.

When emergency service workers are dispatched to a scene, staff access the information of the call and determine if they need mental health professionals. If so, mental health providers tag along.

If staff initially determine that mental health professionals are not needed but later see the benefit, they would head to the scene.

“A lot of times, emergency departments are built for life-or-death situations, and they don’t always have the time or available resources to get people follow-up care after they’re released from the emergency department; that’s where our team comes in,” Wadiak said. “We can continue the ongoing care so that the (emergency team) can go to another scene.”

The pilot program builds off of another program facilitated by the fire rescue station. In 2020, the Community Assistance Referral and Education Services Program, otherwise known as C.A.R.E.S, was established. It provides follow-up services when people call 911 for help, said Sam Lewis, a social worker for Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue.

In the Co-Response Unit’s first month, the partnership has responded to suicidal attempts, homelessness, substance-use situations, family conflict and trauma in need of de-escalation.

“This program is just allowing us more time with these people to really understand what is happening, and figure out what resources they need and how we can help navigate them,” said Brooke Marling, a paramedic for the fire station and member on the co-response team. “I really feel deep down that this is allowing us to become more human with one another.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.