Madison’s Community Alternative Response Emergency Services (CARES) program was first introduced last summer. Now, after months of planning and community input, a pilot version of the program is launching next Wednesday.
CARES is a coalition between the county, city, Madison’s fire and police departments and Journey Mental Health. When it launches on September first, the program will dispatch a crisis worker and paramedic to certain 911 calls for non-violent mental health emergencies.
CARES’ two response teams have been trained in de-escalation techniques, suicide prevention and trauma-informed care.
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway says that pre-2020, Dane County’s 911 center received about 7,000 mental health-related calls per year. Speaking at a press conference today, she said the pandemic only made things worse.
“For far too many folks, COVID has deepened anxiety and despair leading to increased calls for service related to mental health needs,” Rhodes-Conway told reporters.
Currently, the Madison Police Department responds to mental health calls. Steve Davis, Madison’s fire chief, says that lays an unfair burden on the police.
“In the last twenty years or so, so much of the mental health crisis has been laid at the feet of the police department,” Davis says.
Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes says he supports the new program. Barnes says he views it as a way to streamline the department’s emergency response efforts.
“We see this as a significant partnership in our efforts to professionalize some of the calls that we go on, to make sure those persons who are best suited for those calls are the person who does that. If that’s not the police, that’s fine with us — as long as the citizen gets the best treatment that they can.”
For the CARES pilot, the two response teams will operate in a limited capacity. They’ll work out of fire station number three on Willy Street, Monday through Friday from 11 AM to 7 PM, where they’ll respond to calls in Madison’s downtown area.
Chief Davis says the project’s leaders used a data-based approach in determining the pilot’s hours and location.
“We wanted to make sure that we put it into a location where the most use is needed,” he says. “Right now, the data shows that the working hours we’ve identified in the central part of the city are going to be the highest use points.”
Mayor Rhodes-Conway says the program may expand countywide in the coming years, but that too will be a “data-driven decision.” As part of the city’s adopted 2021 budget, Madison’s common council approved $600,000 for the CARES pilot.
Alder Arvina Martin has been leading the charge on the response team for years.
She says the inspiration for the response team came out of discussions she had with Chief Davis shortly after she was sworn into office in 2017 — but her motivation for supporting the project is also personal.
Says Martin: “I have had a situation with a loved one dealing with a mental health crisis, and not knowing if the police would make that person’s situation better or worse, and ultimately calling and feeling not so great because I didn’t know how it would be taken… I’m just unbelievably thankful for the work everybody has done for this project.”
Madison’s CARES program is modeled after several other crisis response teams across the country — including CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon and the STAR program in Denver, Colorado.
There’s no specific number to dial to reach the CARES first responders. The decision on whether or not to deploy the team will be made by Dane County’s 911 dispatchers.
PHOTO: City of Madison