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Madison launches program to respond to mental health 911 calls

The C.A.R.E.S. team is designed to provide alternative emergency response for mental health emergencies.
Published: Aug. 26, 2021 at 5:40 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 26, 2021 at 6:23 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A new program designed to provide alternative emergency response for mental health 911 calls will launch next week.

The Madison Fire Department’s Community Alternative Response Emergency Services (CARES) team will begin responding to 911 calls on September 1.

In a Thursday morning news conference, city leaders explained how the program will work. The CARES team will consist of a paramedic and a Journey Mental Health crisis worker who will respond to 911 calls in a marked minivan.

These teams are trained and equipped to respond to non-violent behavioral health emergency calls that do not require law enforcement.

Luis Bixler, the Director of the Dane County Public Safety Communications, says 911 dispatchers will determine if a call meets the criteria for a CARES team response.

“The program isn’t about sending social workers and paramedics to police calls,” said Bixler. “It’s about sending a team of trained professionals to calls that are better addressed outside of the criminal justice scope.”

City of Madison District 11 Alder Arvina Martin says this idea stemmed from her own personal experience. She had to make the decision to call 911 when a loved one was dealing with a mental health crisis.

“The person that was dealing with this had a very negative experience previously with the police,” said Martin. “I was scared that if I called the police, things would get worse rather than better.”

Alder Martin worked with Madison Fire Chief Steven Davis to get the initiative off the ground.

“Throughout the years, we really have not had another place or alternate resources to deal with people that are having some type of behavioral, emotional, or mental health crisis,” said Chief Davis. “These are medical emergencies. They’re not law enforcement issues.”

City leaders say sometimes a police presence can escalate rather than de-escalate a situation.

“Madison CARES will treat mental health emergencies as the medical issues that they are by centering patient needs,” said Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway. “Madison CARES will send the right person to the right call.”

City of Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes is optimistic a program like this can help MPD cut down on the number of mental health calls they respond to.

“We see this as a significant partnership and our efforts to expand what we do and our efforts to professionalize some of the calls that we go on to make sure that those persons who are best suited for those calls are the persons who does that,” said Chief Barnes. “If that’s not the police, that’s fine with us. As long as the citizen gets the best treatment.”

By September 1, the CARES teams will have completed more than 170 hours of extensive training over the course of two months. This curriculum included 40-hour crisis intervention training through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), cultural competency training, de-escalation training, suicide prevention and risk assessment, trauma-informed care, and more, exceeding the standard in behavioral health training for paramedics.

The CARES team will work out of Madison Fire Department Station 3 located on Williamson Street. For the initial launch, the team will be in service 40 hours a week and only respond to calls in the central district.

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