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St. Paul Fire Department proposes embedded social workers

The rapid response teams would remain on-call 24/7, available to fire but also police and EMT.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The St. Paul Fire Department has proposed a new $600,000 program in the 2022 city budget to embed social workers with firefighters, police officers and other city workers, hoping to improve responses for mental health and people experiencing homelessness.

Fire Chief Butch Inks presented the initial plan to the city council last week, but he promised to release full details in the next 30 to 45 days. Giving the example of a deputy fire chief helping residents at an encampment during a snowstorm last December, Inks said the new rapid response team of social workers could have a "24/7 capability" after regular business hours to supplement the work of emergency services. 

St. Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher said in a phone interview that the idea for a social worker response team came from local service providers in St. Paul. 

"The idea was," Tincher said, "how can we have social workers and people who are trained in mental health, on-call for police, fire and EMT?"

Under the fire department's proposal, response teams would include workers from Catholic Charities, Safe Space, Union Gospel Mission, and daytime shelter Listening House. 

Molly Jalma, the executive director of Listening House, said these teams could fill a needed gap in coverage, especially after hours.

"It's pretty exciting. I don't think anything like this exists anywhere," Jalma said. "Especially overnights, there's no one else to call except for emergency response... If someone on our team, this team, could sit with someone while waiting to get into detox instead of a police officer, that's good for everyone. Good for the individual, good for the community, and saves money all around and frees them up to respond to calls that we really need police officers for."

But the implementation of the plan remains unclear. 

Ward 7 Council Member Jane Prince expressed concerns about the idea, noting that the St. Paul Police Department already has a co-responder model in place and that the county, not the city, would typically handle such mental health services.

"Needless to say, a $600,000 allocation for a brand-new program is very difficult for us to be able to consider in a year where we're still recovering from COVID," Prince said an interview. "I would want to see the way it supports the work of the fire department -- and is not an add-on to take a whole different role of the fire department."

Tincher, the deputy mayor, said the program would offer more response alternatives on top of the co-responder model already in place with SPPD.

And Jalma, whose team members at Listening House would be involved in the plan, said this could create an opportunity for a "soft handoff between this team and one of the other providers to really get (people) out of the direction of a cycle of crisis." 

The council will vote on the full budget in December. 

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