Fire Cares surprised so many seniors need help

When the Fire Cares program began in January, it set out to help people dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues – what was unknown at the time was how many calls they would receive from senior citizens.

“One of our most important takeaways from the first six months of the program is the high number of seniors, in our area, who use 9-1-1 because of underlying behavioral health issues,” said Kim Hendrickson, director of Poulsbo’s Housing Health and Human Services committee.

Fire Cares has helped over 150 people going through a mental health crisis, with nearly a quarter of them being age 65 and older. Many were dealing with isolation, depression, cognitive disorders, or issues around addiction and substance abuse.

The Fire Cares (Community Assistance, Referral and Education Service) program provides non-emergency services in North Kitsap in partnership with local fire departments, community support specialists, the city of Poulsbo, Olympic Peninsula Community Clinic, and local case managers. The Fire Cares team is run by Poulsbo firefighter David Musselman and community support specialist Renee Miller.

“This has been a really interesting six months in terms of lessons learned,” Hendrickson told the Poulsbo City Council. “We knew there were seniors in our community who rely on 9-1-1 for help but we didn’t know how common this is. There is a clear need for home-based, non-emergency assistance to help older adults in our community who are struggling with behavioral health and cognitive issues, and this need is going to be even greater as our residents live longer and age in place.”

It is likely that the increase in calls from seniors stems from the prolonged isolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, in which people 65 and older were more like to contract and succumb to the effects of the virus.

“We’d like to partner with the County’s Division of Aging and Long Term Care, in 2022, to add a case manager to the team specializing in the needs of this population. We think this new component will help us address some significant unmet needs in our community—and further reduce the reliance on 911 and emergency services,” Hendrickson said.

Kitsap County recently awarded the Fire Cares program with a $305,000 grant funded through the county’s one-tenth of one percent treatment tax fund, which supports mental health and substance use disorder programs across the county.