Kent Police are contracting with Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority to provide a co-responder program featuring a nurse and a social worker.
The Kent City Council and Mayor Dana Ralph asked the police department in 2020 to look into starting up a co-responder program in an effort to handle calls that might be a better fit for a social worker or nurse than an officer.
Police Chief Rafael Padilla said it became a bigger challenge than expected to start up a program with finding personnel, vehicles and office space, so when Kent-based Puget Sound Fire Deputy Chief Aaron Tyerman reached out about contracting with its established FD Cares program, Padilla jumped on the idea.
“We found out they could do it better,” Padilla said at a Jan. 17 report to the City Council. “It’s less personnel cost for us and we do not have to pay for vehicles and office space. I think it will be great support and success.”
The Fire Department Community Assistance, Referrals and Education Services program, referred to as FD Cares, is a fire agency-based community injury and illness prevention program that also will connect people with the resources they need. Each response vehicle is equipped with a nurse and a social worker.
Kent will pay Puget Sound Fire $175,000 per year. The council unanimously approved the interlocal agreement Jan. 17 and the program is now up and running. It’s an one-year agreement that renews each year unless one side ends the contract. The cost paid by Kent Police may increase each year by an amount no greater than the percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index for urban wage earners and clerical workers (CPI-W) rate for the prior year.
“A lot of police departments across America are trying to establish co-responder teams to bring police together with a team of social workers and connect with people toward the resources they need,” said Kent Police Cmdr. Mike O’Reilly in a report to the council. “We want to stop the cycle of people out in crisis on our streets and get them to the help they need.”
Historically, it’s been police to respond.
“That’s like putting a square peg in a round hole,” O’Reilly said. “We need to help people who are homeless, have substance abuse issues or behavioral health issues. It frees up officers to not necessarily have to respond.”
Councilmember Zandria Michaud asked Tyerman and O’Reilly to walk the council through a potential response to a 911 call, such as someone walking around in the middle of the street.
“If it’s an emergency, we’ll send an aid response,” Tyerman said. “But if an officer observes somebody not needing medical aid but maybe drug or alcohol or mental health assistance, an officer will get on the radio and ask for an unit with a nurse and a social worker to respond.”
Tyerman said the FD Cares team will stay with the person on the scene for two, three or four hours to find out what the individual needs.
“The team will sit with them and do a full medical evaluation,” Tyerman said. “They’ll take blood pressure, reach out to resources for the treatment they need, sit with the person until they contact a family member or resource. They’ll keep them out of the emergency room and get the help they need or a plan.”
O’Reilly said if there’s no real crime, it’s the right response and might keep the person from committing a crime the next day that would lead to an arrest.
“An intervention stops the crime before it occurs,” O’Reilly said.
Puget Sound Fire started FD Cares in 2013 with a firefighter and a nurse responding to calls where people didn’t need to go to an emergency room but who were chronic callers to 911 for help. In September 2022, it changed up the program to include a nurse and a social worker.
The FD Cares teams also contract with the Renton Regional Fire Authority, King County Fire District 20 (Skyway) and the Enumclaw Fire Department, according to an email from Puget Sound Fire spokesperson Pat Pawlak. And the service is provided to Puget Sound Fire’s coverage area that includes the cities of Covington, Kent, Maple Valley, SeaTac, Tukwila and King County Fire Districts 37 and 43.
With the new Kent Police contract, Puget Sound Fire will dedicate one of its four response teams to the Kent Police Department, Tyerman said. Depending on the call, Tyerman said all four teams could respond, if needed.
Eight nurses and eight social workers are part of the FD Cares program that also includes an intake coordinator to help determine where a person should be taken for help. The units are available seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Calls outside of those hours will be followed up, Tyerman said.
Padilla said police staff worked with FD Cares on operational issues, training for the officers, cross training for the FD Cares team on police protocols and other issues.
Tyerman said FD Cares will track data and report in six months to the council with the stats on responses and evaluate the program after one year to see if it meets the needs of the department and the community.
Puget Sound Fire appointed a liaison to communicate daily with a Kent police sergeant to discuss overnight calls for services and assistance required of FD Cares staff, to discuss follow-up referrals made to FD Cares and to discuss and request FD Cares follow-up with chronic 911 callers.
According to city documents, FD Cares will refer people to a variety of resources, including those provided by the Union Gospel Mission, Catholic Community Services, PEER Kent and Valley Cities Counseling. When FD Cares staff is not responding to calls for service or following up on referrals, they will proactively engage with unhoused community members in an effort to develop positive connections for future contacts and service connections.
“We are all very excited about the possibilities and to learn as we go,” Councilmember Satwinder Kaur said.