A new kind of first responder in Renton

FD CARES program sends nurses and social workers to help.

The way we are thinking about public safety in our communities is changing, and this is certainly true in Renton.

During the pandemic, we saw our social systems tested and stressed as hospitals and clinics went understaffed and overloaded with patients. We saw our shelters for the unhoused reach capacity as they ran out of beds for those in need of a warm place to sleep. We realized we need more behavior and mental health resources and clinics. We know our first responders became overburdened as the overflow of need for these services began to spill into their laps.

During the Sept. 19 forum where Renton’s City Council candidate laid out their platforms and policy priorities for voters ahead of the November election, Renton City Councilmember Valerie O’Halloran spoke about a changing perspective on what public safety looks like in this new era.

O’Halloran said that to invest in public safety does not only include funding and hiring new police officers to apprehend criminals. She advocated for a holistic approach that includes investments in a spectrum of services and a continuum of care that works proactively and compassionately to keep families and individuals safe and cared for.

“Whether that’s a nurse, a crisis interventionalist, whether it’s a warm hand-off to a drug therapy program, whatever the need is, it’s not just about the police,” O’Halloran said during the forum. “It’s police and the services we need.”

Renton has implemented a program that aims to do exactly this, and it is proving to be successful as it grows.

The Renton Regional Fire Authority’s FD CARES program assigns units typically comprised of a registered nurse and a social worker to respond to situations that police and firefighters may not be totally equipped for — and frankly, may not have the time to respond to.

On Nov. 15, the Renton Reporter did a ride-along with an FD CARES unit working out of the Renton Highlands neighborhood. It was a two-person unit, as is typical with FD CARES, comprised of registered nurse Sara Hardin and social worker Luke Connolly.

Hardin has been with the CARES program for eight years. Previously, she was an ICU nurse and took a pay cut to be a part of the CARES pilot program because she wanted to be out in the community helping people. Connolly has previously worked for Child Protective Services in Seattle and has been working for the FD CARES program for less than a year.

They explained that FD CARES is a regional program, currently with about 15 different specialists, responding across South King County in communities like Renton, Kent, Covington, SeaTac, Skyway and Enumclaw.

The FD CARES units, in many ways, are equipped to deal with the non-emergency calls in which people still may need help or a followup — urgent situations that are not yet an emergency, but could be if not cared for proactively. The units also respond to frequent over-users of the 911 system.

One example of someone that the FD CARES program was intended to help is a patient who was previously using a lot of time and resources from first responders.

The wheelchair-using person lives on the third story of a building without an elevator. That person used to call 911 everytime they needed to get down the stairs of their building. Now, FC CARES can assist them down the stairs without using first responders’ time and resources that may prevent them from being able to respond to another emergency.

“The 911 system catches everyone that falls through the cracks of the health care system,” Hardin said.

FD CARES works proactively to touch base with folks who need connections and help from the health care systems that may otherwise not seek the care they need.

They work as a touch point to make referrals to services — be it to shelters, treatment centers, medical help, services to be fed, and just about anything a person may need.

A look at the shift

During their shift, the FD CARES units have a list of individuals whom they believe need followup contact, based on previous records the emergency response system keeps about the last time they called 911, or previous referrals that were made for the person.

The FD CARES teams show up to the home of someone they determine might need help and knock on the door. If they do not answer, which Connolly said is not uncommon, they leave a flyer on the doorknob that reads “Sorry we missed you!” and includes a FD CARES phone number so they can call at their own convenience.

During the ride-along, the team went to a senior living facility to check on an elderly person who had called 911 the night before with respiratory issues and refused to go to the hospital because they had just been released from the hospital the day before.

This time they agreed to go, as their breathing had grown to be even more difficult – a success in the FD CARES team’s book.

Hardin said that often people do not actively seek the services they need, or even accept them when offered, allowing their own issues and conditions to worsen. She said this is why the consistent followups with people they believe to be at-risk is such an important role for the FD CARES program.

“If people are persistent and really want services, they will get them,” Hardin said. “We have to be persistent with them.”

Another visit led the team to check up on the house of an elderly couple who had received a referral to Meals on Wheels during a previous call. The team was looping back after a week or so to see if they had taken advantage of the meal service.

When they arrived, one of the people they had been looking to speak with was not there, as they were receiving medical treatment at an in-patient clinic. That person’s spouse, however, was still at the home.

The FD CARES team came into the home, and made sure the individual was well fed and taken care of. They visited with the person for some time and made sure they had either family or friends to check-in and help them if needed. They reminded the person about the Meals on Wheels program before cordially leaving and going to the next person they thought might need help.

Then they went to a suburban neighborhood to make sure an individual who uses a wheelchair would be able to get safely into their two-story home. When the person arrived, the unit went in to check on them and made sure that person had everything they needed to be safe and comfortable in the home.

The person did not speak English as a first language, so they used a translator over the phone to contact the individual’s case manager so they could make sure they got what they required.

“We need to know what you need so we can help you,” they told the translator to say back to the individual in their native tongue.

The care they offer is holistic and individualized, filling the gaps and covering the blind spots created by the health care system and some of its less-than-adequate systems and infrastructure. They are offering compassion to those who may not be getting it anywhere else, and they are paving the way for a new kind of public safety response.