The city of Poulsbo and the Poulsbo Fire Department are coming together to participate in the Fire CARES program, a mobile unit responsible for responding to mental health and substance use/abuse issues.
The Fire CARES Program is different than the CARES Act. Also known as the Community Assistance Referral and Education Service, it is a state-grant program that local fire departments can opt into and are based on responding to non-emergency healthcare situations. The more well-known CARES Act, or Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, is a federal program created in response to COVID-19.
Fire CARES programs are promoted by state legislation with roughly six programs in operation.
Poulsbo’s iteration of the program will launch in January with Kim Hendrickson, director of Poulsbo’s Housing, Health and Human Services Committee, as the project manager, with Poulsbo Fire Capt. Jake Gillanders spearheading the program.
Last year, Poulsbo Fire responded to over 350 calls from or about people dealing with mental illnesses. That’s up 30 from 2019 and up 70 from 2018. It’s that steady increase that inspired Gillanders to set up the Fire CARES program.
“These patients are not going to stop coming to us. We can either deal with them in the most effective and efficient way possible, which is with a CARES Unit, or we go with the least effective and efficient, which is transporting them to the hospital,” Gillanders said.
“When we’re transporting people to the hospital we’re not addressing their underlying problems. We might be resolving the crisis at that moment, but there is no long-term benefit to the patient.”
When Gillanders became the head medical officer for PFD, a high priority for him was instigating a better mental health management program.
“I didn’t know what that was going to look like when I started and serendipitously, Kim came in to talk to us about another program she was working on at the time and through some brainstorming, we landed on the CARES program,” Gillanders said.
The Fire CARES program will essentially be a mobile unit based out of PFD and will be staffed by paramedics with training in crisis response, along with a behavioral health professional. The unit will provide in-home and mobile services to individuals struggling with mental illness, mental health distress, substance use and other behavioral health issues. Additionally, fire and police can request the CARES Unit to respond in the field if needed.
Calls will be prioritized to Poulsbo but will respond to requests throughout north Kitsap County.
The program was recently recommended for funding by the County Treatment Tax Advisory Group and will go before the county commissioners this month. Once approved the program will receive $400,000 in funding in county treatment tax dollars, which equates to one-tenth of one percent of taxes paid to support mental health and addiction services countywide.