Hundreds of calls diverted from 911 to other community supports as part of Calgary pilot

Calgary’s emergency responders are celebrating a pilot that diverted hundreds of calls away from 911 towards other community responses, via Calgary Distress Centre-operated 211.

“These calls include non-life-threatening and non-criminal calls that otherwise may have been dispatched to the Calgary Police Service,” Supt. Asif Rashid said Wednesday.

“This includes connecting some calls from 911 to Distress Centre Calgary when the caller expresses the need to speak to someone about issues where there is no need for police, but they may not have otherwise known about that resource or who to call for support.”

During the first four months of the pilot that started on Feb. 1, 248 non-urgent calls were diverted, or about two calls a day. That allowed police and other emergency services to respond to more life-threatening and/or criminal calls.

Most diverted calls happened on Mondays and Thursdays, with the average call lasting 17.5 minutes.

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The city said about three-quarters of the diverted calls come from Calgarians between the ages of 25 and 54 and the top three needs identified were mental health assessments, counselling requests and shelter inquiries.

Calgary 911 A/Cmdr. Glenda Sahlen said the goal was to provide enhanced response to Calgarians by better connecting them with community-based services.

During the pilot, 211 call-takers were moved into Calgary 911 facilities to allow for better behind-the-scenes co-ordination and call transfers.

“I know my people are learning more, that they’re able to have an understanding of what happens after the transfer to 211, and it’s just arming us with more information about what resources and services are available,” Sahlen said.

“I’ve worked for the City of Calgary and for 911 for 35 years, and this is the most pivotal… project in my life (and) career.”

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Officials said calls for matters like mental health, addictions, shelter, child care and family support have been the types of calls transferred to 211 operators.

“All calls are answered live by a professional staff who’s trained in conducting a thorough needs assessment, connecting with the most appropriate resource, providing advocacy when needed and making a call back to check in to make sure that, you know, people really did get connected to that support and that their needs truly have been met,” Distress Centre CEO Robyn Romano said.

Romano added that a lot of the work came from the city’s mental health and addictions strategy approved by council last year.

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Rashid said CPS officers have heard from Calgarians how difficult it is to navigate the many support systems, especially in times of crisis.

“Historically, by having police as the exclusive service provider to people in crisis, we’ve essentially as a community criminalized underlying social and psychological issues such as poverty or trauma or homelessness,” he said.

“And we understand that that’s probably not the best mechanism for which to serve our most vulnerable.”

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