Soaring fire and medical calls and the increasing need to assist homeless people could bring changes to the Saint Paul Fire Department in 2022. A pilot project involving the department and on-call social workers from outside agencies would connect people to needed help, whether at a clinic, shelter, day program or other facility.

The proposed Community Advocacy Response Team Pilot Project was reviewed on November 17 by the City Council. It would cost an estimated $900,000 annually, paid for by about $600,000 from the city’s general fund and potentially $300,000 in grants for at least the first two years from the Pohlad Family Foundation.

“We want this team to have an immediate impact within day one of service,” said Assistant Fire Chief Steve Sampson.

The program would tie into the city’s Community First Public Safety Initiative. The response team would be on-call 24 hours a day, said Fire Chief Butch Inks. Working with medical and social service partners, he said the team would be better prepared to address the complex medical and behavioral needs seen with homeless people.

There has been a dramatic rise in call volumes for fire and medical services this year, Sampson said. A decade ago, the city responded to about 30,700 calls a year. The pandemic and civil unrest in 2020 created a record number of calls—just short of 44,000. This year’s call volume is projected to top 55,000.

“We want this team to have an immediate impact within day one of service,” said Assistant Fire Chief Steve Sampson.

“So in 10 years we’ve increased our run volume by 79 percent,” Sampson said.

Of the roughly 50,000 calls to date, about 5,500 have been to assist people who are classified as homeless, with a majority of those coming from downtown Saint Paul.

City Council members first heard about the proposed pilot project earlier this fall. Some council members at that time pushed back on the idea, questioning why the city would pay for on-call social workers when the county and private nonprofits already provide similar services.

Council members expressed more support on November 17 and asked for regular updates. They agreed with the idea of contracting for social workers, saying the outside agencies and county have more social service expertise than the city.

Sampson said the program would align with other public and private programs, including the Police Department’s mental health response unit. While the Fire Department wants to avoid duplication of services, Sampson cited the “incredible” volume of calls to help homeless people and the need to try a different approach.

Social workers would partner with city emergency medical workers. The Fire Department would absorb the costs of management, with reallocation of some of its budget. Staffing numbers are still being determined, Sampson said.

 

— Jane McClure

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