Durham Becomes First City in North Carolina to Dispatch Mental Health Professionals to 911 Calls; Three New HEART Pilot Programs Begin This Week to Connect Residents in Crisis to the Right Care
This week, the City of Durham will become the first city in North Carolina to dispatch unarmed mental health professionals as a new kind of first responder to better match 911 responses to the needs of people experiencing behavioral and mental health crises.
The City’s Community Safety Department is launching three new crisis response pilots intended to connect Durham residents to the right care — starting from the point at which someone calls 911 all the way through to providing a caring handoff to service providers prepared to help meet the needs of residents in crisis.
“One of the highest priority areas we think about, and work on daily, is how best to keep our residents safe and well,” City Manager Wanda Page said. “Durham has taken the opportunity to lead the way and find new, equitable, and innovative approaches to help keep our community safe and well. Evidence from other communities that have launched similar programs gives me confidence that alternative responders can reduce some of the current, heavy call load on our police officers, meaning we can free up those officers to focus on violent crime - the area where we need them the most.”
In June 2021, the Community Safety Department was approved to enhance existing public safety efforts by finding different ways to address issues that don’t necessarily need a law enforcement response. Now, one year later, Durham is ready to launch three pilots after a year of careful planning, which included regular input from other first responders, law enforcement, and Durham residents.
“While we are the first in our state to place mental health professionals inside our 911 Center and to dispatch unarmed response teams to mental health calls, we are not the first in the country,” said Community Safety Director Ryan Smith. “Other cities are already showing the promise of these new approaches to public safety, and this gives us confidence that these pilots can help us do an even better job of caring for our neighbors in crisis in ways that are safe for all involved.”
According to Smith, by better matching crisis responses to the needs of residents, the aim is to divert people with unmet behavioral health needs away from the criminal justice system and connect them to community-based services.
“Our hope is that this will reduce the number of repeat calls to 911 for the same unmet needs, which will increase capacity for our law enforcement, EMS, and 911 call takers to be able to respond to higher priority calls for service,” Smith said.
These new crisis response pilots will operate under the name of HEART, which stands for Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response Teams. The new HEART logo and the City of Durham organizational logo will both be prominently displayed on responder apparel and vehicles to help distinguish them in the community and identify personnel as part of an official City response.
HEART Pilot Programs Launching This Week
- Crisis Call Diversion: On June 28, mental health clinicians will be embedded in the Durham Emergency Communications Center to quickly connect residents to a mental health professional when someone is experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis. This pilot will provide this support for all 911 calls received citywide.
- Community Response Teams: On June 29, unarmed, three-person teams will be dispatched as first responders when 911 calls are received about non-violent mental health crises or quality-of-life concerns. Each team will include a mental health clinician, peer support specialist, and emergency medical technician. This pilot will primarily operate in a focused service area as shown on this map. This service area was selected based on the high volume of eligible calls that occur in these areas.
- Care Navigation: On June 30, in-person and phone-based follow up from clinicians and peer support begins within 48 hours after meeting with one of the pilot program responders when additional support is needed to connect to community-based care.
All three pilots will initially operate Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the goal of extending the hours of operation into the evenings and weekends later this summer.
HEART Pilot Program Launching Later in 2022
- Co-Response: This pilot will launch later this year, pairing clinicians with police officers to respond to behavioral health 911 calls that pose a greater potential safety risk. More details about this pilot will be available when the Community Safety Department is closer to the launch date.
Since the pilots are integrated into Durham’s 911 system, residents will not need to learn a new number or worry about requesting the right response. According to Smith, people should continue to call 911 and call takers will route the call to the appropriate responder based on the needs of the caller.
“Dispatching through our 911 system provides added safety benefits to our new responders who will remain visible to dispatch and will have the ability to radio for backup from law enforcement, if needed,” Smith said. “Our Care Navigators will then follow up with residents after an initial interaction with one of our responders when they may need support connecting to additional community-based services.”
According to Smith, initial eligible 911 call types have been carefully selected in consultation with other first responders, after reviewing local data on these calls, as well as evidence from other cities with a track record of safely dispatching unarmed responders. The pilots will focus on responding to calls that involve non-violent behavioral health needs and quality-of-life concerns, including calls about people who are struggling with mental health, substance use, or housing stability. Any 911 calls involving weapons or violence toward others will not be responded to by the HEART pilot programs.
Durham residents can stay informed on the progress of the HEART pilot programs through the monthly reports that will be placed on the department’s webpage. The first report is scheduled to be published in August. Additional information on the pilots, including answers to frequently asked questions and the Community Response Teams service map, are also now available online.
About the City of Durham Community Safety Department
The Community Safety Department works to enhance public safety through community-centered approaches to prevention and intervention as alternatives to policing and the criminal legal system. In its second year, the department has three primary functions: piloting alternative response models for 911 calls for service, collaborating with community members to identify and test new approaches to public safety, and managing and evaluating existing contracts and external partnerships intended to advance public safety.