Mental health first responders coming to Anchorage in 2021

Published: Nov. 22, 2020 at 10:22 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Starting in 2021, a new kind of emergency service will be coming to Anchorage. Anchorage’s recently-passed 2021 operating budget includes funding for a Mobile Crisis Team, dubbed “mental health first responders” by its advocates.

The idea according to Assembly Member Meg Zaletel, one of the Assembly members who pushed for the team’s creation, is to approach mental health emergencies from a new angle.

“Instead of a police officer, in an instance of crisis that seems more behavioral health-related, we send a paramedic and a behavioral health clinician,” she said.

That pair would respond to those emergencies and address any immediate medical problems while also employing de-escalation tactics. Next, the idea is to connect people with the appropriate services.

“Then, those that... need a higher level of care would then be transported or connected to the appropriate level, whether it would be needing the emergency room or directly to the psych [emergency department] at Providence,” said Michael Riley, a firefighter, and paramedic with the Anchorage Fire Department.

Riley is also the leader of the Fire Department’s CORE team, a group that since 2018 has been working to connect Anchorage’s high-frequency users of emergency services to resources, thereby reducing pressure on first-responders.

“We saw a lot of success with that in 2018, and so we just kept the program going,” he said.

The MCT will also be run through AFD, and Riley added it will be working alongside the CORE team to continue to reduce pressure on the fire and police departments.

“At a very high level, these emergency departments are already over-utilized,” he said.

Zaletel and Riley both said the MCT will handle an estimated 60% of mental health-related emergency calls currently handled by AFD and APD. Estimates from an assembly consultant put that at around 7,300 out of 12,200 calls.

The team is still in-development, and wouldn’t be handling every mental health-related call as it starts up. Riley said APD would likely still be called for any calls involving violence.

“At first, it’s going to be a very conservative group of calls that we’re going to go on,” he said. “As we kind of learn the system, we kind of learn the calls, as the community kind of catches up.”

Despite that, Riley, Zaletel, and the Anchorage Police Department are all excited to see the team get off the ground.

“This is an important step forward for our community in meeting the needs of those in crisis,” said APD Deputy Chief Kenneth McCoy in a statement Saturday. “We intently studied communities in the Lower 48 who were using the Mobile Crisis Team model and are pleased to see this first step in addressing the need.”

The team will be funded by the alcohol tax beginning in 2021. Zaletel said she hopes to have 12-hour service by the first quarter of the year, with 24/7 service starting by July. The team will be assigned to calls by dispatch, just like AFD and APD, meaning no new phone numbers for Anchorage residents.

“We’re not asking the public to learn any new numbers or call a different resource,” she said.

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