First responders await training in ‘behavioral health 101,’ due late 2022 / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click screenshot of slide from during the May 17, 2022 Whatcom County Justice Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee meeting to access a recording of the meeting on the County website

May 19, 2022 Dena Jensen

Ever think, here in the year 2022 in Bellingham and Whatcom County, folks have got to be off-base who are claiming that law enforcement officers, paramedics, EMT’s (emergency medical technicians) or firefighters don’t have sufficient knowledge of behavioral health concepts and approaches to properly serve the needs of community members? 

We might be prone to think so, for example, from hearing officers from the Bellingham Police Department indicate in 2020 that 70% of the service calls they were responding to on a daily basis at that time were social service related calls.

On Tuesday May 17, 2022, there was a Justice Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee Discussion (#4: Behavioral Health) that was held, and during the meeting there was a presentation on Whatcom County Response Systems Services. This is the link to that meeting:

I’m posting the following, not only for informative purposes but also to help validate the community members who have been out on the streets volunteering and performing outreach to our community members in crisis. I know they often encounter situations where they are seeking services for those people who are in urgent need and sometimes receive responses that do not meet the needs of those people. 

At the same time our government agency representatives don’t often report out to us on gaps in such services. With the steady promotion that is done on the good job that all workers and agencies are doing, the fact that people are severely suffering because of services that are *not* being provided – or not being provided to a degree that is urgently needed – often gets left out.  In turn, this can discredit the reports of volunteers saying there are those not being well-served and make those volunteers feel gaslighted. 

Malora Christensen is a Response Systems Manager with the Whatcom County Health Dept. She gave most of the presentation on Whatcom County Repsonse Systems during that 5/17 SAC discussion. Here is what she said near the end of her presentation:

“And then finally, our first responder training program – we are developing an online platform for first responders and social service providers. It’s five hours of training that can be self-paced.

“We had some initial funding from the Whatcom Community Foundation to get this project off the ground. We did a bunch of qualitative interviews with first responders in 2021 and heard loud and clear that there just isn’t good local training on behavioral health 101: concepts like harm reduction, trauma informed care, housing first; and then also resources: what one program does and how they work together – just an understanding of our system as a whole. 

“So we’re really excited about this. We hope to have the training completed by the end of 2022 and available for partners.”

I am excited about this too, but again, it’s pretty scandalous, is it not? – that we have been carrying on here, being assured that community members are in good hands, but the people whose hands we have been being put into, have not been being given really basic tools they need to serve us.