City memo: 2nd phase of Austin’s Mental Health Diversion Program underway


AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin, Austin Police Department and local mental health professionals are continuing work on a plan to better address mental health calls, according to a memo from city staff released this week.

The program aims to direct more mental health professionals at Integral Care and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services (ATCEMS) to respond to 911 callers in need of help or treatment — rather than involve the caller in the criminal justice system.

The memo laid out three main goals for the program:

  1. To better match a mental health crisis call with an appropriate mental health response.
  2. To improve triage at the 911 Call Center to direct mental health calls more appropriately to Integral Care’s Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (EMCOT) or the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services Department (ATCEMS), and fewer to APD.
  3. To get mental health clinicians on scene in response to mental health crisis calls to 911, particularly during the hours identified in the Meadows Mental Health Policy Report (“Meadow’s Report”) as the times of highest need.

Last December, as part of a three-phase plan, APD put in place the first phase, a Crisis Call Diversion (CCD) program with Integral Care as recommended in the Meadow’s Report. The CCD focuses on sending mental health-related calls to an EMCOT Call Center Clinician who is in the call center with 911 operators.

An EMCOT clinician takes calls that have been suspected by the 911 operator to have a nonviolent mental health crisis component. From that point, the clinician performs a triage screening, assists the caller with verbal de-escalation, completes safety planning, dispatches Integral Care’s crisis teams and provides other community referrals.

According to the memo, ATCEMS is currently working on the second phase of the program, which includes adding EMCOT clinician positions within ATCEMS operations to divert more mental health calls to the clinicians. A training video made by Integral Care gives details to ATCEMS call takers on how clinicians can assist.

Currently, the clinicians can dispatch an EMCOT unit instead of police or ambulance.

In the next phase, they will develop “protocols” for dispatching a multidisciplinary health care field unit — composed of one EMCOT clinician and one ATCEMS Community Health Paramedic — instead of dispatching ambulances or APD officers.

Right now, 911 operators ask callers an initial triage question: “do they need Police, Fire, or EMS?”

When the program reaches full capability, with 24/7 EMCOT coverage, the memo states that 911 operators will add a fourth option: “do they need Mental Health Services?”

For the 2020-21 fiscal year, city council has approved $1.4 million to expand the Integral Care EMCOT contract for staff and telehealth services. The city has also approved $1.1 million to expand the mental health diversion initiative by adding seven new positions and necessary equipment to the Community Health Paramedic Program.

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