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Health - Public Health News

Posted on: January 18, 2023

New Program to Address Bellingham 911 Calls for Mental Health, Social Welfare

Bellingham has a new program that will send a behavioral health specialist and a public health nurse to respond to specific non-violent behavioral health 911 calls. The Alternative Response Team (ART) is an innovative program based out of the Whatcom County Health Department that has been collaboratively created through local first responder, crisis system, and community partnerships. Offered within Bellingham city limits, the ART program is operated through partnerships that include the City of Bellingham, What-Comm 911, and Compass Health. 

This program will serve people in Bellingham who are in immediate or emergent crisis. Examples include substance use, mental health, or someone who is unable to care for themselves in a moment of crisis. It will also benefit our EMS and law enforcement personnel by allowing them to focus on life-threatening and violent emergencies.

 “ART fills a gap in our mental health system helping people in an immediate crisis situation when the most appropriate response to a 911 call is social services expertise rather than a law enforcement response,” said Malora Christensen, Response Systems Manager with the Whatcom County Health Department. “If you call 911 because you see someone wearing shorts, no shoes, and no jacket in the middle of winter, that would be an example of a situation ART would respond to.” 

What-Comm 911 will screen calls for service, working collaboratively with a Community Services Connector located at dispatch to identify appropriate calls for ART. There will still be times when police are dispatched, like violent situations, calls where a crime is alleged to have been committed, and when ART staff are not available. Paramedics and EMS will still respond to life-threatening medical situations.

The program will start out with four employees working in pairs, with a goal of seven-day-a-week coverage.  

The ART program is funded through a variety of sources. The City of Bellingham and Whatcom County both contributed dedicated funds, the Whatcom County behavioral health fund covers administrative costs, and the Washington State Healthcare Authority provided funding as part of a supplemental budget appropriation secured by our representatives in the state legislature in 2022. In addition, the City of Bellingham was awarded an alternative response team grant for 2023.

While ART is a program within the city limits of Bellingham, a similar program, the Co-Responder Program, will launch for Whatcom County areas outside Bellingham this winter in coordination with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO). The Co-Responder Program will work in close coordination with WCSO and provide a behavioral health specialist to ride along with law enforcement calls when appropriate. The co-responder can also follow up individually with clients to make sure someone in need is connected to services and long-term support. 

“I know that it’s been a real challenge getting help for people in crisis, and this innovative work that our law enforcement and behavioral health professionals are doing together is a timely and critical piece to keeping everyone in our community safe. I was glad to be able to work with my colleagues in Olympia to provide funding for this program,” said Alicia Rule, State Representative for the 42nd Legislative District, who helped secure $2.2 million in the 2023 supplemental budget to support the start-up cost of the ART program.

“The ART program is an important component of our community’s coordinated response to people in crisis or in need of support,” said County Executive Satpal Sidhu. “It helps our most vulnerable neighbors and their families find a pathway to stability.”

"ART is truly a product of government listening to and responding to the community's desires around an alternative to law enforcement response," said Seth Fleetwood, Bellingham Mayor. “It represents a significant evolution in our delivery of care. I want to thank the many people and organizations that have worked together to make this program a reality."

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