After years of decrying the standard response to 911 calls regarding unhoused individuals, and advocating for change, the Santa Monica Fire Department has had its prayers answered — with two years of funding for a Community Response Unit.

The Community Response Unit is designed to reduce the number of repeat 911 callers by designating firefighters who can stay on calls with unhoused individuals long enough to connect them with the resources needed to address the underlying issues at hand.

Typically, firefighters responding to medical calls with unhoused individuals transport them to the emergency room and rush back to address other calls.

“We’re kind of forced by protocols to default to take somebody to the emergency room and we have no other options available,” said Interim Fire Chief Wolfgang Knabe. “There’s really no resolution at that time. They’re seen for a couple hours and they’re turned loose back onto the streets, only to have this cycle continue.”

If effective, a CRU can generate significant cost savings for the City and create a collaborative bridge between emergency responders and homeless service providers.

City Management initially turned down a 2019 proposal to fund a CRU, but as the homelessness crisis has only worsened City staff changed their tune.

In the July biennial budget process, City Council designated $480,000 in funding for a dedicated firefighter-paramedic and firefighter-EMT to staff a CRU for 40 hours a week for two years. This is a pared down version of the 6.5 full time equivalent staff member unit proposed in 2019, but Captain Patrick Nulty expressed hope that the CRU could expand over time as it proves its efficacy in action.

“The thought with the CRU is we can have a focused team who understands the network of services and is able to divert those calls, instead of to the emergency room, to more targeted help,” said Nulty, who will be leading the unit. “The request at the end of two years is going to be to expand the program, seven days a week would be great, and then the next step after that would be 24 hours a day.”

The CRU has the capability to connect callers to a wide range of resources including mental health care, shelter beds, transportation home to reconnect with family, and substance abuse treatment. Local service provider partners include The People Concern, West Coast Care, Exodus, Clare Matrix, Wise and Healthy Aging, and SMPD’s Homeless Liaison Program.

The Santa Monica Fire Department initially ran a pilot CRU program staffed by one person from January to March of 2019.

According to Santa Monica Firefighters Union President Dom Bei, there were four key benefits observed from the program: it successfully connected unhoused individuals to appropriate resources, it educated fire personnel on those resources, it freed up units to respond to other calls, and it limited the costs incurred by high frequency users.

The cost savings of breaking cycles of repeat 911 calling are a huge potential benefit of the CRU.

The approximate cost of a Fire Department medical response with ambulance transportation to an emergency room is between $6,800 and $7,500.

In a case study conducted for the initial 2019 CRU proposal, SMFD analyzed the costs of repeat calls from three unhoused individuals from August, 2016 to June, 2018. The study estimated that 62 calls from one 35-year-old male cost $272,666, while 28 calls from a 50-year-old male cost $172,947, and 17 calls from a 54-year-old female cost $112,429.

The CRU is a flexible unit and has applications beyond assisting unhoused individuals. For example, it can help reduce the number of repeat callers from elderly individuals who experience frequent falls.

“The CRU is able to look into these calls and say ‘Hey, what do you need? Do you need a walker? Do you need some rails installed?’,” said Bei. “Anytime they solve the root of the problem, you’re going to decrease those calls.”

Lastly, adding an additional firefighter unit through the CRU provides the department with another team to call upon in the case of a large-scale incident.

Although the program took several years to move forward, the fire department is very excited by the progress that has been made and is thankful for the support of the City and community.

“Knowing that there needs to be something done allowed us to stay the course and we kept trying to develop a program, kept pushing, kept trying to get community support. A lot of our neighborhood groups really stepped up and saw the value in the program,” said Bei. “The firefighters have seen the value of what the program could be, so having council take the ball and spearhead it was huge.”