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Columbus Looks To 911 Dispatch In Alternative Response Pilot Program

Mayor Andrew Ginther speaking at Columbus Public Health offices.
Nick Evans
Mayor Andrew Ginther speaking at Columbus Public Health offices.

Columbus is trying out an alternative response program to steer some 911 calls away from the police.

City leaders have spent months trying to figure out how to tailor response so the right service providers show up after someone calls 911. Over the next six weeks, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther explains, they’ll be piloting a program to do just that.

“To make this happen, we will have a social worker or mental health nurse embedded in our 911 dispatch center to help triage and redirect calls,” Ginther said.

Erika Clark Jones, who heads up the county’s drug and mental health agency, ADAMH, said many of the calls that come in don’t require police response.

“We estimate that half of the calls that come in require police or EMS involvement,” Jones said. “And the remainder are most appropriately managed by community responders, including clinicians, peers, individuals with lived experiences.”

Columbus Police Commander Dennis Jeffrey insists officers usually respond well on service calls with people in crisis or suffering from addiction. Still he said the police shouldn’t always be the primary responders.

“Sometime the best response might not be two police officers, it might not be a medic, it might be secondary responder, and that really begins in the radio room, that’s really critical and that’s why we’re starting off with this triage pod to try to get it right." Jeffery said.

Columbus Fire Captain Matt Parrish said the effort will emphasize existing alternative response teams, like RREACT or the police’s mobile crisis response units that pair clinicians with officers.

“There will still be times that the right response may fall back upon our ultimate safety net and the traditional 911 responders such as CPD patrol, and CFD’s EMS crews,” Parrish said. “We will continue to train and improve their understanding knowledge and response capabilities to calls involving mental health and addiction crisis.”

The pilot program is set to launch Monday and officials with Columbus Police, Fire and public health will be keeping tabs on the program to see how it goes. The city plans to use the pilot to gather data for future staffing and alternative response team plans.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.