DENVER (KDVR) — The people on the other end of the line when you call 911 in an emergency have never had more options in choosing who should respond to a crisis, as Colorado trends toward providing more targeted options when responding to behavioral, mental health and substance abuse-related calls.
This is exemplified in Denver, where the city’s STAR (Support Team Assistance Response) Program has been running for two years and recently received funding to expand.
The group operates a fleet of vans that goes out to calls with Denver Health paramedics and mental health clinicians for 911 calls like trespassing, drug overdoses, mental health crises and more.
Not only did a study out of California find the STAR Program reduced the cost per response and the number of low-level crimes in the districts it operated in during the pilot, but U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet also proposed a bill to use Denver’s program as a model for the country.
While communities including Grand Junction, Aurora and Summit County have programs that follow STAR’s model of sending only mental health clinicians and paramedics to some calls, other communities rely on a co-responder model that pairs a clinician with police.
Is it a police emergency or a mental health call?
The decision of who to send on which call falls on the 911 dispatchers in these communities.
“Dispatchers have so much to consider when they are triaging a 911 call,” said STAR’s operations manager for Denver 911, Carleigh Sailon.
Sailon has been working with STAR since it first began. She started as a trained mental health clinician for WellPower, formally known as the Mental Health Center of Denver. WellPower has the contracts to provide clinicians for both the STAR Program and Denver’s co-responder program, which partners a mental health clinician with an officer for certain calls.
Dispatchers now have several buckets to choose from when it comes to the unique emergencies they field through 911: send STAR, co-responders or traditional police fire or EMS response.
Sailon said the main factors that weigh on these choices are risk, presence of a weapon, violent behavior, the urgency of a response, if there is an emergent medical need or if there is a crime that has been committed.
“Our call-takers and dispatchers are in that line of work because they want to get the right resource to the community member that’s calling in, and now they feel like they have an appropriate resource to send when historically they didn’t have it,” Sailon said.
Since it started operating in 2020, STAR responders have never needed to call for police backup during a call, underscoring the success dispatchers have made in making the right call for a response.
“I think that it shows that our triage procedures at Denver 911 are working incredibly well,” Sailon said. “Our dispatchers and call takers are sending us into situations that are appropriate for civilian responders.”
Sailon said when there is a weapon present, and a person is considered a risk to themselves or to others around them, police are always put into the equation for public safety, and responder safety.