Fourteen dispatchers in Winchester’s Emergency Communications Center are now certified in mental health awareness and de-escalation techniques, in an effort to improve the City’s overall response in crisis situations.
Training for the front-line dispatchers included how to best communicate with callers who may be having a mental health crisis, techniques to calm a situation before officers arrive, and how to recognize situations that may need a response from officers who are specifically trained in crisis intervention. Dispatchers learned how to insert “triage questions” into conversations with callers to better identify signs of mental illness. That information is immediately sent to officers who are en-route to a scene.
“Our dispatchers are the front lines of emergency response, and we want to ensure that we are delivering the highest quality service to residents and first responders,” said Erin Elrod, Director of Emergency Communications for the City of Winchester. “Our team now has the tools they need to help identify a mental health-related call, and to ensure that the proper resources are dispatched immediately.”
The Winchester Emergency Communications Center hosted a regional training for 9-1-1 dispatchers on March 21 and March 22, 2017, at the Timbrook Public Safety Center. A total of 44 people attended the program from emergency communications centers in the City of Winchester, Front Royal, Clarke, Frederick, Warren, and Shenandoah Counties. Ten full-time employees and one part-time employee from Winchester’s Emergency Communications Team received their certification following this training. Three other employees had previously obtained their certification.
Elrod attended the training last year and applied for a grant from the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) to provide the same training to dispatchers across the Shenandoah Valley. The Virginia Beach Crisis Intervention 9-1-1 Training Team led two eight-hour classes. The team includes two dispatch supervisors, a police officer, and a mental health professional.
In 2016, the Winchester Communications Center processed a total of 45,943 calls for service, and Police Officers responded to 592 mental health-related calls for service.
“Cases involving a mental health crisis can present a significant risk to the safety of first responders. Through this training, the dispatchers have more awareness of how to quickly spot mental health challenges so we can prepare officers and paramedics for what to expect when they arrive,” Elrod said.
In 2007, the Winchester Police Department implemented the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) model to teach officers how to diffuse situations, and to reduce the need for force when interacting with persons with mental illnesses. To date, 22 officers, approximately one-third of the force, is certified in crisis intervention. Several officers are also trained as CIT instructors. The goal of the CIT model is to divert individuals from the criminal justice system, and connect them with community-based resources to address personal needs.