Fire: The Community Response Unit will handle homeless calls. Courtesy photo

The Santa Monica Fire Department announced the launch of a brand-new type of emergency resource, the Community Response Unit (CRU) on Sept. 13. The CRU is a typical-looking ambulance staffed by two Firefighters, but it has a unique mission.

The emergency resource strives to provide an alternative response to 9-1-1 calls to better address the needs of vulnerable populations in Santa Monica, including people experiencing homelessness. 9-1-1 has evolved to for many in the community as their only access to primary care, hence the creation of the CRU.

“For the first few months, we plan on hitting the ground running. This is a completely new type of program for our Fire Department, or any Fire Department for that matter. We want to be out front learning as much as we can, and discovering where we are most effective. Out of the box, we are already equipped to do some amazing things like diverting mental health patients from crowded emergency rooms to alternative destinations, such as Psychiatric Urgent Care Centers, which is really where they can get the appropriate care they need,” Patrick Nulty SMFD Fire Captain said. “Another aspect of our program is having the CRU team connected with the broad network of serviced providers within the community. Many of our communities’ most vulnerable people, both housed and unhoused, will end up on our list first as they trend towards using the 9-1-1 system for care. The Fire Department has so many opportunities to navigate folks to the services they need. Our hope is that early interventions can be made to really help improve a lot of Santa Monica residents’ quality of life.”

CRU will be working hand in hand with Santa Monica Police Department’s Homeless Liaison Officers, the City Attorney’s Office and the Human Services Division. The city’s goal is for each team to be an extension of one another.

“For example, our team is prepared to respond to 9-1-1 calls involving behavioral health crisis, which the CRU is certified to assess and transport to a Psychiatric Urgent Care Center, but when a mental health clinician is needed in the field our team can reach out to the HLP team who has a Department of Mental Health Clinician embedded in their team,” Nulty said. “It is truly a collaborative approach, and one that will deliver very favorable outcomes.”

When a 9-1-1 call is less urgent and the solution is not necessarily the emergency room, the CRU goes to work and has the latitude to spend more time on scene to help connect those in need with more appropriate resources. Additionally, this team has the unique distinction of being able to transport people experiencing a behavioral health crisis to a psychiatric urgent care center, rather than an emergency room. Firefighters assigned to the CRU have received specialized training in mental health emergencies, crisis communications, de-escalation, and substance use disorders.

One of the two Firefighters on the CRU is a licensed Paramedic so they have the ability to medically assess patients for acute health conditions and provide immediate lifesaving measures if encountered.

“These highly trained Santa Monica Fire Department professionals look forward to serving the Santa Monica community and helping those in need with specialized interventions and access to supportive services,” said Interim Chief Knabe. “This is something our team has been working toward for a long time and this launch is a big day for us as we evolve our service to uniquely meet the community’s needs.”

The Santa Monica City Council funded the CRU in the FY 2021 – 2023 budget as a priority project to address homelessness, one of the City’s top three community priorities.

“For now the program is only funded for two years. We are hopeful it will continue beyond that. The program budget is $523,000 for the 2 years, which includes personnel, training, equipment/vehicle maintenance, and other miscellaneous expenses,” Nulty said.

The CRU will work in collaboration with other City departments, regional agencies, and nonprofits to help bridge the gap for housing and other support services. Another important goal of the program is to help keep Paramedics, Firefighters, and emergency room resources available for higher acute care services.

“The Santa Monica City Council wholeheartedly moved the Community Response Unit forward earlier this year as one new investment to meet our community priority of addressing homelessness,” said Mayor Sue Himmelrich. “The CRU’s ‘one meaningful intervention at a time approach’ will help improve outcomes for individuals experiencing homeless and will serve as an additional team on our streets to meet this crisis head on.”

The CRU will be in service Monday through Thursday during peak hours.

Daniel@smdp.com