EVERETT — Most of the time, a 911 call is reserved for the most dire of emergencies. But sometimes, it feels like the only option.
Maybe it’s someone having a mental health crisis in public, and bystanders don’t know how to help without calling the police. Maybe the 911 caller is elderly and home alone, out of prescription refills, with no way to leave the house to get them.
By taking an alternative approach to emergency responses, Everett leaders believe they can ensure care on a personal level. With the help of a new grant and American Rescue Plan Act funds, the city plans to create teams of social workers who can offer immediate support in a crisis and assist with long-term support going forward.
At their Nov. 16 meeting, Everett City Council members voted unanimously to accept a $183,000 grant awarded by the Association of Washington Cities. Julie Willie, Everett’s community development director, said the grant would be used alongside a chunk of the city’s ARPA funds in “two parallel processes” to build infrastructure for mental health response teams.
The idea, Willie said, is to develop an alternative response network for cases that may not require police or paramedics.
Willie said the plan is to use $1.47 million of the the city’s $20.7 million ARPA award to get the program running, including hiring two social workers each in the city’s fire and library departments. The grant will go toward building or purchasing software to enable social workers across departments to keep track of people who frequently are in need of, or request, 911 resources.
“What we realized, in talking with our police and our fire and our library systems, is that a lot of those departments will interact with the same individuals,” Willie said. “So we want to be able to create a system for care coordination and share information for all of our social workers.”
Willie said when someone is in obvious mental distress, the response is usually “911-based.” Police and paramedics may address immediate problems, but those responders only see that person when there’s a problem big enough to warrant an emergency call. And if a person is calling emergency services themselves, there’s often a root issue that needs to be addressed.
The fire department’s social worker team will be deployed either alongside paramedic crews or separately, and will help to clinically assess people in crisis, Willie said. The library team will serve in more of a “preventative or interventional” capacity, assisting patrons who come in with chronic issues.
The Everett Police Department already has embedded social workers, but these new teams will divert cases, especially when a police response isn’t necessary.
Willie said the fire department was chosen for the pilot project because they regularly see people who need a social work approach to their care. The library, as a safe public space where people often use free resources and shelter, was another good choice for a social work team, Willie said.
“In both of these situations, we have great public servants that want to help the community, but they recognize that that’s not their expertise,” Willie said. “By having a mental health professional alongside them, that adds additional expertise and wisdom, and that’ll be beneficial for both city staff and the people who are affected.”
Everett Public Library Director Abigail Cooley said in a written statement that library staff pride themselves on creating a place where people turn when they’re seeking information and resources. But staff are increasingly finding themselves out of their depth as more and more patrons come in facing complex life situations.
Cooley said the library hired a social work intern in 2021 to help patrons at its main branch address those problems. But when a situation escalates, there’s still only one option.
“Even though it’s recognized that an armed officer or medic is not always the best response, without an alternative, library staff continue to rely on 911 when patrons are experiencing moments of crisis and distress,” Cooley said. “Having a social worker or mental health provider on site gives us that needed alternative and often provides a better outcome for the individual.”
Police will still respond in dangerous situations or when there’s criminal activity, but Willie said the social workers will have the training to de-escalate in a crisis and then start the process of providing immediate help to the person.
The teams will also ideally have outreach specialists who, after the most pressing concerns are addressed, can connect people to social services and community groups, Willie said.
Eventually, Willie said she hopes the city will establish a true alternative response team that can be deployed instead of police or fire when someone makes a mental health-related 911 call. Everett doesn’t currently have the funds available to develop such a team, Willie said, but she thinks recent legislation funding a statewide mental health hotline shows promise for more improvements in the near future.
The new pilot program will also help the city get a better picture of where it needs to focus its next efforts, Willie said.
“Our new social workers will be able to say, ‘You know what, we really do need more case management, we need more hand-holding, we need more navigation through the systems or maybe all we need is housing,’” Willie said. “So we’re going to learn from these pilots while we help people. And that is kind of an exciting part of this work, that we can explore the best ways to serve as many people as we can.”