San Rafael approves mobile crisis response program

San Rafael is gearing up to launch its own team of crisis first responders to provide emergency services for the mentally ill and homeless.

The City Council approved an agreement with the nonprofit Petaluma People Services Center to staff the crisis response team for a three-year pilot period. The contract is not to exceed $775,000 a year. An additional $100,000 involves startup costs for a van, uniforms, radios and other equipment.

The effort is expected to get underway in March.

“As presented in concept, this alternative response resource is intended to provide services and support to the vulnerable population within our community,” said San Rafael police Lt. Todd Berringer, the project manager.

In July, the council authorized the police department to solicit bids from social service organizations.

At that time, Berringer said the city’s team would supplement an existing county mobile crisis response team, but it would focus on San Rafael. The crisis team is expected to relieve police and firefighters from approximately 4,000 emergency calls each year. That represents about 8% of 911 calls in the city, Berringer said.

Petaluma People Services Center was the only nonprofit to submit a proposal.

The organization successfully operates Specialized Assistance For Everyone (SAFE) teams in Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cotati. The SAFE team launched in Petaluma in 2020 and in Rohnert Park and Cotati in 2021. The nonprofit proposed using the same model for San Rafael.

The San Rafael program would require full-time staff, including three crisis intervention workers, three emergency medical technicians or nurses and a program navigator. Part-time staff roles include a program director, program manager and clinical support team members.

To start, the SAFE team will operate 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Based on peak dispatch center call volumes, the team is expected to operate from 8 am to 8 pm when it launches, but the hours could change.

Berringer said the new team would be integrated with the San Rafael dispatch center. That means a supervisor will have a direct line of communication with the team and be able to track its location.

Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, said the staff will include one bilingual member on each shift. While some work will coincide with the county’s mobile crisis team, the SAFE team will focus on its collaborations with the police and fire departments, she said.

“It’s communication that makes it work, starting with those incoming calls into dispatch,” Hempel said.

Dispatchers will learn when it’s appropriate to send the SAFE team rather than police or firefighters, or when police presence might be needed when the crisis workers on scene, Hempel said.

Hempel said the organizations programs in Sonoma County have received crisis funding intervention from the state, enabling the nonprofit to purchase a database connected with the 988 suicide and crisis hotline. San Rafael dispatchers will now be linked to that system as well, she said.

Hempel said existing staff will serve as team members and trainers working in San Rafael. Staff will be shared across all of its service areas, she said.

Part of the initial launch will involve interacting with the San Rafael nonprofit and business communities and informing them of the new service and non-emergency hotline.

To measure the success of the program, Berringer said the city will track statistics such as calls for service, emergency department diversions, jail diversions, the number of suicidal people and the number of welfare checks.

Councilmember Maribeth Bushey asked how the program is being funded.

The city has secured $2.27 million in funding, including $600,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act; more than $1 million in cannabis-related funds; and $570,000 previously allocated for the Marin County Major Crimes Task Force, which is defunct.

City Manager Jim Schutz said he recommends that the city review the program at least annually to discuss funding whether to ramp up the hours to expand the program, and to determine if long-term beyond the pilot period is necessary.

“I think we’ve got a good plan in place for the short run, and by having the pilot, that will give us the opportunity to look at grants and other funding sources should we want to expand it going forward,” Schutz said.

Hempel said the Biden administration has put a focus on crisis intervention, so the organization will be looking to tap more grant opportunities. Additionally, the nonprofit is set up to accept Medi-Cal and Medicaid to bill certain services.

“I know our businesses and residents are going to be very pleased to have this service available and I’m very much looking forward to it,” Bushey said.

Mayor Kate Colin said the community has strongly favored a program like this for years.

“I’m really proud of the fact that we’re doing this here in Marin,” Colin said. “I hope that our fellow jurisdictions will follow suit.”

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