Launched in January 2023, this Bellingham program sends a behavioral health specialist and a public health nurse to respond to specific non-violent behavioral health 911 calls. The Alternative Response Team (ART) is an innovative program that benefits people having mental or behavioral health challenges, and it will also benefit our police personnel, allowing them to respond to other emergent calls requiring law enforcement intervention.
ART will work closely with other programs within our mental health system, including the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (MCOT) operated by Compass Health and What-Comm 911 dispatch to ensure the right response is deployed into the community.
What is the ART program, and what does it do?
The Alternative Response Team (ART) is a new and innovative component of our first responder system to help people in crisis. The program will serve people in Bellingham who are in immediate or emergent crisis, including mental health, substance use crisis, or inability to care for themselves in the moment of crisis.
The multidisciplinary team will consist of a behavioral health specialist and a public health nurse. These teams will respond to non-violent mental health 911 calls instead of a police officer.
ART works to de-escalate tense situations and engage someone experiencing a crisis in a non-judgmental way. They also focus on enhancing community safety through strengthened partnerships between first responders and community services.
There are many support programs in our community that focus primarily on short-term and long-term aid. ART is a crisis system enhancement, it doesn’t replace other systems that already exist.
It is a collaborative effort by state, regional, and local leadership, including the Whatcom County Health Department’s Response Systems Division, City of Bellingham, What-Comm Dispatch, and Compass Health.
ART responds to people in crisis that could have mental health or substance abuse challenges. ART also responds to people with unmet basic needs that need an immediate response.
ART staff are specifically assigned to immediate and emerging situations. They are not long-term case managers, but they work closely with community programs to make sure the person in need is connected to follow-up support.
Examples of 911 calls ART would respond to include:
A person who is outside in the wintertime without a jacket, shoes, or socks. (Someone in an immediate situation who lacks basic needs.)
Someone who is having a mental health crisis and is not a threat to themselves or others.
Someone who needs immediate transportation to help solve their crisis. Like, help in getting to the crisis triage center, detox facility, or from the hospital back to their home.
People experiencing homelessness, living in hoarding situations, locations with needles, and other drug paraphernalia, when these concerns come from a 911 call.
Examples of 911 calls ART would not respond to include:
Criminal behavior calls or complaints.
Life-threatening medical situations.
Who benefits from this program?
People in crisis or who lack immediate basic needs benefit from a program that is specifically designed to respond to immediate and emergent 911 calls that have, in the past, resulted in a police response. These people get their needs met by a trained behavioral health team who are non-judgemental and who will meet the person where they are.
Law enforcement benefits from being able to focus on public safety calls because they will respond to fewer mental health and social services 911 calls. This will allow Police to primarily respond to 911 calls that best fit their public safety roles.
The whole community benefits from knowing a friend, family member, or stranger in need will have the most appropriate response available based on individual needs and circumstances.
Where can I expect to see ART?
ART is a program within the city limits of Bellingham. People can expect to see Alternative Responders when 911 calls are for problems that need to be addressed right away but are not an immediate threat to life, safety, or property.
A similar program will launch for Whatcom County areas outside Bellingham this winter in coordination with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. The Co-Responder Program will work in close coordination with WCSO and provide a behavioral health specialist to respond with law enforcement when appropriate. The co-responder can also follow up individually with clients to make sure someone in need is connected to services and long-term support.
Why is this important? How does this affect me as a Bellingham resident?
The person in crisis needs a different approach, and the first responder system also needs the right resources. ART is the right resource - a crisis system enhancement. ART is a bridge for a person in crisis to connect them with the appropriate services.
The EMS and law enforcement components of the first responder system are able to focus on violent and life-threatening emergencies.
These programs are offering an alternative to reduce the long-term behavioral health challenges and free law enforcement to pursue violent and serious criminal behavior.
Bellingham and Whatcom County are joining communities across the country that are building alternatives that address community needs.