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caption: Seattle is updating its 911 dispatch to allow new types of call responses. Firefighter Matthew Jung, left, and caseworker Greg Jensen are members of SFD's existing Health One unit which pursues non-emergency calls.
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Seattle is updating its 911 dispatch to allow new types of call responses. Firefighter Matthew Jung, left, and caseworker Greg Jensen are members of SFD's existing Health One unit which pursues non-emergency calls.
Credit: KUOW/Amy Radil

Seattle will launch a new unit of crisis responders under revamped 911 system

This fall, the Seattle mayor’s office and city council have agreed to jointly create a new type of crisis response unit to be available when people call 911.

Right now, 911 calls in Seattle go overwhelmingly to police or the fire department. To offer more options — like in Austin, Texas, for instance, where dispatchers offer “police, fire, medical, or mental health" — Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold said they have to first undertake “back-of-the-house work." That means installing new software that allows for “criteria-based dispatch” at the city’s Community Safety and Communications Center.

“They’ve identified the vendor, I believe they’re finalizing the contract,” Herbold said. “The new system will have to be installed. They’ll have to get trained on it.”

Simultaneously, Herbold said, the mayor and council will determine the details of a new crisis response unit that 911 callers can request for non-emergency calls.

Emergency dispatchers “won’t be able to flip the switch until we have a response to offer, right? But I expect that early next year,” she said.

Herbold said they haven’t yet decided which agency will house the new unit, but she envisions a unit that could do wellness checks, and other calls that may not require medical aid or law enforcement.

The Seattle Fire Department currently operates Health One, where teams of firefighters and caseworkers take referrals and check up on people who have had contact with the 911 system. But Herbold said one goal of the new unit would be to ease the staffing shortages for firefighters or police.

“Sending somebody like a CSO, community service officer, to see first, and then calling in additional help if needed is, I think, a much more effective way to use our very limited public safety resources,” she said. Community service officers are civilians who currently handle outreach and non-criminal calls within the Seattle Police Department.

Bill Schrier, a strategic advisor to the Seattle Community Safety and Communications Center, further explained how the center is currently operated.

“All 911 calls are answered first here, at the Seattle Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC) Department, which we usually just call ‘Seattle 911,’” Schrier said. “Generally, CSCC dispatchers route calls to SPD, SFD, and to the Sobering Unit operated by DESC (Downtown Emergency Service Center). There are no other alternative responders for dispatch of CAD incidents by CSCC at this time.”

The system is complicated, he added.

"Jobs at CSCC are separated into call-takers and dispatchers. Call-takers only answer 911 calls, then, when appropriate, enter the call into an electronic system. Dispatchers do not answer 911 calls (although they will sometimes join a call-taker on a call about a serious incident.). They dispatch Seattle Police over the radio.

When someone calls 911, the call-taker has multiple choices – route to SFD, create a Computer-Aided Dispatch system (CAD) incident for dispatch by a CSCC dispatcher, but also many other options such as transfer to Crisis Connections, just give out information, transfer to another 911 center (I-5 collisions are routed to the State Patrol, for example), direct the caller to the online crime reporting system or refuse the call, for example a neighborhood dispute over the placement of a fence, which is a civil matter,” Schrier said.