Renton Regional Fire Authority’s FD CARES program to expand

As a new service to respond to mental health crises, the program will add a second unit this summer.

After introducing a new type of emergency response unit geared towards taking calls involving mental crises, the Renton Regional Fire Authority has plans to expand the program.

The program, FD CARES, put a single one-car unit, comprising a social worker and a nurse, in charge of responding to calls that involve behavioral and mental health situations. And now, according to Chuck DeSmith, deputy chief of EMS/Safety for the Renton Regional Fire Authority, the department has plans to add a second unit on July 1 to respond to these kinds of calls 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Renton is not the first community in King County to adopt this kind of mental health specialized response unit, as the rate of calls involving individuals experiencing a mental health crisis has increased since the onset of the pandemic.

DeSmith said during a recent Renton Rotary Club meeting that the rate of these calls has nearly doubled in Renton since 2015, and police and firefighters are not always equipped to properly respond to them.

DeSmith said that often these calls do not involve criminal behavior or medical emergencies, and require specialized care and attention that a registered nurse or a social worker would be better trained and equipped to give.

DeSmith said the program allows a better way to manage and respond to these situations and relieves Valley Medical Center of having to give emergency care.

He said the units can refer individuals to services and can keep track of individual case management, something first responders could not typically do, as every call response is treated as if it is the first time dealing with an individual, even if that individual has been subject to many calls for response.

The program covers a population of 140,000 people and DeSmith said it costs a little less than $1 million a year, but is now a budgeted service offered by the department for the foreseeable future.

He said it is funded by the fire budget, Medicaid and the EMS levy.

During the Jan. 19 Renton Rotary Club meeting, city leaders and advocates celebrated a roughly $43,000 donation to the FD CARES program from the club’s RotaCare fund.