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Someone passed out at a bus station. A person screaming at passersby. Another caught in the middle of a mental health crisis.

These are the calls that once filled the days of Flagstaff’s fire and police departments. They weren’t always the best option and, in some cases, the uniforms and flashing lights would only escalate the situation. There was no one else to send, though.

But that’s no longer the case. These calls will fall under a new unit equipped specifically to handle them. After more than a year of planning and preparation, the Community Alliance Response and Engagement (CARE) unit was officially launched on Monday.

Each unit consists of a trained behavioral health specialist and a Flagstaff Fire Department firefighter / EMT. They work together from 9 am to 7 pm each day in a specially equipped van, answering to 911 and non-emergency calls in addition to conducting proactive Outreach throughout the city. CARE replaces police in matters that don’t pose a Threat to public safety. They connect the individuals who don’t pose any danger with the resources they need, allowing the police to respond to other calls. They’re not armed, nor are they in uniform.

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It’s a groundbreaking alternative-response model for a city the size of Flagstaff and likely one of the first in the state.

“I think this is the right step in the right direction,” Adamsta Shimoni of Flagstaff City Council said. “… I hope it’s something that sustains itself and is resilient – not just across the state, but across the Nation.”

Covering the gaps

The CARE unit launched quickly despite being in the making. The Flagstaff City Council approved a $ 2.5 million, three-year contract with Terros Health in October 2021.

Terros Health is a healthcare company specializing in crisis services, mental health and substance abuse treatment. They previously worked alongside Flagstaff’s law enforcement to provide crisis response resources, but often did not respond until after the police had come and gone.

The contract with CARE came as the city sought alternatives to traditional policing models amidst an increase in calls related to public intoxication, mental health and behavioral crisis. Initial estimates projected the pivot to CARE would cut the calls handled by fire and police by up to 10%.

“The unit will cover gaps that are Unfortunately fairly prevalent in Flagstaff and previously necessitated dispatching the police department, fire department and an ambulance, which is not necessarily what any of those types of Responses are meant for. They often don’t have the time or tools to deal with someone in psychosis or intoxicated. They’re just not the optimal respondents and it’s about being able to get mental health respondents to them instead, “said Bryan Gest, director of the Northern Arizona Crisis Service for Terros Health.

Flagstaff is just one of many cities across the country embracing alternatives to traditional policing following the 2020 death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the subsequent law enforcement Reckoning. City governments and departments across the country sought to shift the onus off of police and onto those better equipped to navigate a mental health crisis or other social issues.

‘We’re all here as Helpers’

Each two-person unit will be casually dressed in a CARE T-shirts and travel throughout the city in a Terros-branded van. Their calls are dispatched through the Flagstaff Police Department’s dispatch center. Just the team responds without police or an ambulance.

It’s a new model for the city and the teams, which are composed of the Flagstaff Fire Department and Terros, learning as they go along. The initial team members spent hours in training in the week before the launch, learning how to build rapport, asses risk and help stabilize someone to get them out of the crisis state.

“It’s about time, presence and patience,” clinical manager Sirene Lipschutz explained to the group of 15.

Success comes in the form of small steps for CARE, Lipschutz explained. They know they will likely deal with the same people again and again. The key is to build trust so they know they won’t force them into anything and will instead Honor their wishes.

“We’re all here as Helpers,” Lipschutz said.

In addition to responding to outgoing calls, the vehicle will also function to transport individuals to local shelters or medical facilities. They’ll move throughout the city, Addressing issues that arise. Sometimes it’s just about connecting people with the right resource. There’s no direct answer, but instead they will determine the solution based on the need with the input of the person in crisis. They have the Latitude to do that, too.

“We want to have an ongoing presence in the community,” Gest said. “Even if someone isn’t active in a crisis, we can be there and offer resources, help meet basic needs or just help build rapport with the community.”

Compassionate response

There’s no correct answer when dealing with these situations and the process will continue to evolve during the first days, months and years of running. Officials are tracking the number of calls handled by CARE, the amount of calls rerouted and how many calls they could handle if the unit were to expand.

“We collect data from all of this as we go on,” Flagstaff Fire Department Capt. Mike Felts said. “We’ll figure out if we need to adjust or tweak any parameters in there as we go along.”

The CARE team, which is headed by Gest and Felts, will provide monthly updates to the city council, with the first one in April.

Even on launch day, there was a promise that this was just the beginning, that one day there would be a second and third unit – enough to provide care 24 hours a day. Coucilmembers gathered outside city hall to wish the first two-person CARE unit of FFD’s David Ortiz and Terros’ Marge Chase well on launch day.

“Today marks the beginning of a compassionate response,” Councilmember Regina Salas said before sending the team off on their first shift.

The CARE unit had answered to six different calls by 3 pm Monday – just five hours into their first shift.

Reporter Bree Burkitt can be reached at 928-556-2250 or bburkitt@azdailysun.com.

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