Fostering Safer Interactions Between First Responders and Individuals with Mental Illness Through Technology Solutions

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Across the United States, lawmakers and public safety officials are transforming how police officers and medical personnel respond to behavioral health emergencies. 

By ​​Karin Marquez, Senior Director of Public Safety of RapidSOS

Since 2015, nearly a quarter of all fatal police interactions in the United States have involved an individual with a known mental illness. Just this past June, a Portland man, Michael Ray Townsend, was shot and killed by a police officer after calling the police himself, seeking help for his suicidal ideations. And in 2020, a 13-year-old boy with an autism spectrum disorder was shot and seriously injured by Salt Lake City police after his mother called officers to report that her son was having “a mental breakdown.” 

Stories like these are all too common, and citizens across the country have made it clear that we must transform emergency response systems to help first responders get the data they need to save more lives. The key lies in improving current processes and providing law enforcement officers with comprehensive training on behavioral health disorders.

Now, lawmakers, public safety officials and tech companies are taking steps towards positive change. Several bills are in the works and laws have been enacted to utilize technology in order to aid first responders’ information gathering processes during mental health calls. Moreover, technology companies like RapidSOS have worked with public safety to build the RapidSOS platform, which securely links life-saving data from 350M+ connected devices to emergency services and first responders. 

Government-Sponsored Action

Both federal and state governments are overhauling mental health emergency response systems throughout the country to aid law enforcement and public safety officials. 

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission created a national 9-8-8 number for mental health crises which would activate a non-police response. Several states have already introduced bills to adopt the new system, with an anticipated implementation date of summer 2022 nationwide. 

Moreover, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 contains several mental health initiatives to help jurisdictions improve mental health services and introduce reforms. The law allocates $3.5 billion for block grants addressing mental health issues, including $20 million for an education campaign directed at first responders and health care personnel to encourage identification and prevention of behavioral health disorders. 

There have been changes made at the state level as well. For example, in December 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation establishing the ‘Marcus Alert,’ a statewide mental health alert system to ensure behavioral health experts are involved in responding to individuals in crisis. ​​The bill requires that every locality establish a voluntary database to be made available to the 9-1-1 alert system, and the Marcus alert system to provide mental health information and emergency contact information for response to an emergency or crisis. 

Other states are exploring similar legislation driven by increased focus on mental health, and at least 34 states already require officers to complete training or educational courses on interacting with individuals who have mental health conditions.

Emergency Health Profile

In order to provide first responders with better information, tech companies and startups are partnering with public safety stakeholders, local governments, nonprofit organizations, and mental health advocates to create technology that can prevent these tragedies from occurring.

One such example is the Emergency Health Profile, a free opt-in profile that allows citizens to voluntarily upload personal health information securely online, to be shared with 911 only in the event of an emergency. The platform was created in response to the Covid-19 pandemic last April by RapidSOS, the American Heart Association, American Red Cross and Direct Relief. Information provided can range from mental health issues, blood type, Covid-19 status, medications, medical conditions and emergency contacts. To ensure data privacy, personal health information is associated with an individual’s phone number and is only made available to first responders when a 911 call is placed from the associated phone number, and then subsequently deleted from their system once the emergency is over.

Virginia has adopted and recommended the Emergency Health Profiles solution as part of the state’s aforementioned Marcus Alert legislation. Residents can create a free digital health profile through emergencyprofile.org that paramedics and other emergency personnel can access during a 911 emergency call.

According to Virginia-based Lieutenant Matt Pecka, “This service is another opportunity to assist those in the community that may need additional resources. Having a coordinated response alongside our mental health professionals is paramount.”

By having critical health information at their fingertips, local law enforcement, EMTs and doctors can be more informed about existing health issues that could affect treatment. Programs like these have the potential to transform the nation’s emergency response systems, but they will need continued support from the government and the public to be truly effective.

Transforming the country’s emergency response systems is critical to the health of our society. By enacting new laws and implementing technology that makes it easier for first responders to access health information, we can truly affect positive change. 

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