Use of mental health professionals in place of traditional first responders doubles under Ramsey County Initiative

Ramsey County mental health response

In the first year of a Ramsey County initiative aimed at better responding to mental health related 911 calls, the number of calls transferred to professionals trained in such crises, in place of dispatching traditional first responders, nearly doubled, according to data released on Tuesday.

When you call 911 from anywhere in Ramsey County, it’s still answered like it always has been, by a dispatcher at the Ramsey County Emergency Communications Center.

The difference is that not all of those calls are sent straight to police, fire or EMS. Instead, dispatchers have the option to pass callers in need of mental health services over to a trained social worker, known as an ESW (or embedded social worker).

When a call is transferred, the ESW asks a few more questions, and as long as no weapons or active crime are involved — and it’s still the right fit — the call is turned over to the county’s Mental Health Crisis Response team.

According to the county, ESWs were brought in in 2023 to help handle the demand for the Mental Health Crisis Response team, which started forming back in 2016.

That year, the number of 911 calls transferred to the team was 263. By 2022, that number grew to 1,765.

And in 2023, with the onset of ESWs, 3,491 calls were transferred.

“The systems and responses that we’re building up are really meeting needs that have existed for a long time,” integrated health and justice administrator and now Appropriate Responses Initiative planning specialist Jenn Hamrick said.

According to Hamrick, the rising number of transferred calls doesn’t necessarily point to a massive increase in demand, but rather, the county’s increasingly ability to respond to it.

The majority of mental health calls are actually handled over the phone, Hamrick added.

For example, the new crisis response data showed 145 of 798 calls that were transferred to the Mental Health Crisis Response team in the first four months of 2024 actually resulted in a face-to-face response.

“Part of what we’re seeing, kind of, in those numbers is that not everybody feels that they need [an in-person interaction] to have their needs met,” Hamrick said.

“Anecdotally, it’s going well. We’re hearing a lot of positive feedback,” she added.

Anywhere from 15-25% of the 911 calls in a given day are transferred to the ESWs to triage, according to the dispatch center operations director.

At least one of the four of them is on staff roughly 22 hours a day. Though, ESWs are not currently staffed on either Friday or Saturday night, which was a concern raised at a Ramsey County Board meeting on Tuesday.

The hope, eventually, is to hire more of them, Hamrick said.