Published in April 2023 by The Tulsa World. View here.
Editor’s Note: This week, the Alternative Response Team (ART) launches in Tulsa to provide the right care and resources for those who may experience a mental health crisis or behavioral health-related request.
New resources are rolling out Monday to help address Tulsa’s staggering number of mental health crisis calls.
Two highly experienced Tulsa Fire Department paramedics and a licensed clinician from Family & Children’s Services’ Community Outreach Psychiatric Emergency Services — or COPES — are forming a new de-escalation team to try to reduce the number of people who experience a mental health crisis and end up in jail, a hospital emergency room or an inpatient behavioral health hospital.
“This team will be instrumental in serving callers to the 911 system in crisis who can be best served through a medical and mental health assessment,” said Amanda Bradley, associate chief program officer for COPES. “The development of this team is another way we are working to provide the right level of care at the right time.”
The new Alternative Response Team will be similar to the city of Tulsa’s Community Response Team but will handle nonviolent calls and function without a police officer in the mix.
“The City Council added two positions at TFD to expand (the Community Response Team), but the Tulsa Police Department didn’t have the personnel,” said Tulsa Fire Chief Michael Baker. “We didn’t want those resources just sitting there and those positions vacant when we could get another team out on the streets to meet the needs of Tulsans in crisis.”
Fire Department paramedics with at least 15 years’ experience and the same crisis intervention training that police officers receive will serve on the Alternative Response Team alongside an experienced licensed clinician.
“Their goal is to de-escalate crisis situations, stabilize in place 60% of these folks who might otherwise have been picked up and taken to jail or a hospital, or if they need to go somewhere, to determine the most appropriate destination,” said Capt. Justin Lemery, the Tulsa Fire Department’s director of emergency medical services.
“This helps utilize our city’s resources more efficiently because these co-responder teams can spend one to three hours on a call, typically. These units have the time to spend, where police or a fire truck need to go back in service so they can be available for other calls.”
Team members monitor emergency calls to determine where they’re needed and can also be called upon for assistance by other emergency responders at a scene.
Lemery said this interdisciplinary team approach provides on-site triage of situations that may appear to be mental health-related but are sometimes physical health issues such as drug interactions or overdoses.
And in some instances, even the most serious calls have been best addressed by these kinds of response teams.
“One example of a suicidal individual — the team talked to them for one hour on-site and was able to load them up and take them to an appointment with their therapist, who could address the crisis immediately, wait there for them, and then take them back home,” said Lemery.
“And since 2021, we’ve had case managers who can follow up with these folks and see how they’re doing or if any further referrals are needed.”