Fire wins again

Well, it looks like the City finally is going to launch a program to take the responsibility for responding to so-called “mental-health calls” away from the Alameda police department, as police-reform advocates have been demanding for months.

But it’s not going to happen right away.

In fact, as the result of Council’s 3-to-2 vote to give the job to the Alameda fire department rather than to the non-profit Felton Institute, the program for replacing the cops on those calls won’t begin operating until the end of this year or the beginning of next year.  Had Council chosen Felton instead of AFD, the program could have been up and running in fewer than two months.

It thus appears that, for the rest of 2021, police officers will continue to respond to
mental-health calls, including the types of calls involved in the Mali Watkins incident, which occurred in May 2020, and the Mario Gonzalez incident, which occurred in April 2021.  (We asked City Manager Eric Levitt whether the City or the police department had changed their response procedures since the Watkins or Gonzalez incidents.  He did not identify any changes.)

Why will the fire department take longer to get a non-police response program off the ground than Felton would have taken?

The short answer is that, unlike Felton, AFD has no experience operating a mental-health program.  According to Interim Fire Chief Ricci Zombeck, the six firefighters – three paramedics and three EMTs – to be assigned to the response program will need to undergo 96 hours of training by the County (in “crisis intervention,” behavioral health, and “the laws of 5150”) before it can begin.  Moreover, the City will need to hire or contract with a “clinician” – it doesn’t employ any now – who can spend 40 hours a week providing follow-up care.

As a result of the need for additional training, Deputy Fire Chief Jeff DelBono told Council at its July 6 meeting, “we looking at . . . closer to like December [or] January to have people up and running in the unit staffed with people that can work 24 hours a day 365 days a [year].”

By contrast, Felton already operates a variety of programs providing mental-health and social services in San Francisco and Alameda County, and its existing staff includes psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and licensed social workers.  According to Felton’s president, Al Gilbert, “we would be up and operating in less than 60 days, with the full team of people out there doing the work and services because we’re already trained to do that, and we already have the professionals on our team.”

We find it perplexing, to say the least, that Council would take an action that it knew would delay the commencement of a long-sought-after program for several months.

It’s not as if the Council majority preferred for some reason to start the non-police response program later rather than sooner.  Indeed, at the July 6 meeting, two of the three Council members who voted for AFD expressed a need for speed.  “I think our constituents really want to have a response as soon as possible,” Vice Mayor Malia Vella said, later adding, “[M]y goal is to have something start up as soon as possible.”  Councilman John Knox White was even more specific:  “I would like this up and running by September.”

Nor did any Council member challenge Mr. Gilbert’s assertion that, if Felton were chosen, the program would be ready to go in fewer than 60 days rather than in five or six months.  It was true, as Mr. Knox White pointed out, that none of Felton’s current projects matched exactly the one it was proposing for Alameda (Mr. Gilbert had conceded as much).  Nevertheless, it would seem logical that, given the nature of its business, Felton would take less time to assemble a team of medical-health professionals to provide the necessary services than it would take the fire department to get paramedics and EMTs trained to do a job they aren’t doing now.

Our perplexity deepened when we reviewed the arguments made on behalf of the two contenders.

Prior to the June 15 meeting, the police-reform “unbundling” subcommittee sent a letter, signed by all of its members, to the Mayor and Council, calling the fire department’s proposals “unacceptable” because the AFD response team did not include a mental-health professional.  This position echoed the one taken in the subcommittee’s March final report:  “[O]n a fundamental level it makes no sense . . . for a police officer (or even a firefighter) to be the primary and often sole responder to a call for help regarding a mental health crisis.  The responder should be someone with the expertise to assist the individual in crisis.”

The subcommittee did not unequivocally support Felton’s proposals, either, because its members weren’t sure whether Felton intended to respond to a call in the first instance or wait to be summoned by a police officer.  (At the June 15 meeting, Felton’s Curtis Penn clarified that the Felton team would go in without the cops.)  Nevertheless, the subcommittee stated that Felton’s proposal for an all-day, every-day response was the only one “worthy of consideration” because it was the only one that “specifically highlights direct services by mental health professionals available 24/7.”

We don’t know whether any of the Council members read or considered the subcommittee’s letter.  But at the July 6 meeting Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft systematically laid out the case for Felton:

I am very much in favor of us working with the Felton Institute for these reasons:  We’re looking for an alternative police response with mental-health expertise and behavioral-health experience.  Cultural competency is also important.  Many of the calls for service that have been problematic in our city have involved people of color and their encounter with Alameda Police Department.  Felton Institute has a track record – 70 years of working in the behavioral‑health, mental‑health field.  And they are also proposing to do mental-health outreach during the day, going around town in their vehicle, stopping at encampments and other places where people may appear to be in need of service, and by doing that possibly reducing the number of mental-health related calls, and also leading to better outcomes for these individuals who are struggling and on the street.  They have experience working with people in encampments; some of their staff have lived experience as formerly incarcerated individuals, formerly unsheltered individuals. . . .

[P]ublic safety, be it fire or police, are trained to do life-saving emergency response.  They get in, they get out fast, which is totally appropriate most of the time, but when it comes to a mental health response, it can take hours of time, patience, spent with an individual. . . .

I am very impressed with the proposal that Felton put together. . . .  [B]y contrast, Alameda Fire Department – who does a wonderful job at the kind of emergency response we ask them to do, they do mutual aid to other fires – their proposal is one-page long, and it has more to do with staffing and equipment . . . and then really just two sentences about mental-health response.  One is that 100 hours of mental-health training would be provided to Alameda EMS from the county, I believe, meaning they have no mental-health experience to date.  And there’s one sentence referring to follow-up care from [a] crisis management unit.

I think that we are much better served by going with an experienced provider with actual experience in this field.

Later, Councilman Tony Daysog (who, it should be noted, does not routinely agree with Ms. Ashcraft) concurred.  Felton’s “comparative advantage,” he said, was the “level and depth” of its experience “dealing with mental health issues, day in, day out, minute by minute, hour after hour.”  Sure, AFD paramedics could be “train[ed] up to be able to respond to those issues.”  But if summoned to a crisis on Webster Street at 2 a.m., a Felton team would have an “edge” because “they know the questions to ask, as opposed to not only providing the type of answers that need to be delivered.”

Unlike the unbundling subcommittee, Mayor Ashcraft, or Councilman Daysog, the other three Council members spent little time comparing the merits of the AFD and Felton alternatives.

Mr. Knox White declared that, although he was supporting the fire‑department plan, “in a perfect world I think we would actually be trying to find a way to do both proposals.”

Ms. Vella praised the fire department for being “innovative” and “trying to work within existing framework and structure” by offering to deploy the new ambulance the City bought last year (rather than, we guess, asking for funds to buy yet another ambulance – which would have brought the fleet up to five).

Only Ms. Spencer truly acted as an advocate for AFD.  To us, however, her reasoning seemed a little, well, opaque.  At the June 15 meeting, Ms. Spencer extolled the fire department’s “rapport” with the community:  “Our police and our fire work hand‑in‑hand with each other, all of the time,” she said, “They work with our Alameda hospital, they work with our community members.”  (To which one might respond:  So what?)  Then, at the July 6 meeting, she noted that firefighters “are a significant part of our first responders, and when we’re talking about crisis intervention and . . . mental health issues, I am looking for a first responder.”  (To which one might respond:  How come?)

At the same time, Ms. Spencer didn’t identify any particular flaws in Felton’s proposal or approach.  The only purported drawback she cited was that Felton currently isn’t operating any mental-health programs in Alameda.  “It’s critical to me,” she said, “that the services for mental health be offered in the city of Alameda.”  (Ms. Ashcraft pointed out that AFD currently wasn’t running any mental-health programs in Alameda, either.)

With three Council members ready to give the nod to the fire department, most of the discussion at the July 6 meeting involved who would serve as the “clinician” in an AFD-run program.  City Manager Levitt stated he preferred to contract with a third-party provider rather recruit and hire a City employee.  Following up on a hint from Interim Fire Chief Zombeck, Ms. Vella suggested that Felton could take on the task.  (Mr. Gilbert diplomatically stated that his organization would be open to negotiation.)  Ms. Spencer, however, wanted Mr. Levitt to consider as well other possible third-party providers like Alameda Family Services.  And that direction ended up being part of the motion that ultimately passed by a 3‑to‑2 vote.

Based on what we heard during the two Council meetings, the case for selecting the fire department to respond to mental‑health calls doesn’t seem very compelling, especially when the goal could be accomplished sooner, and perhaps more skillfully, by a non‑profit organization like Felton.  So why would three Council members choose to go with AFD?

Let’s haul out Occam’s razor.  Since none of the other explanations makes sense, maybe the answer lies in the simple axiom that, in Alameda, what fire wants, fire gets – or, at least, when the fire department talks, the politicians listen.

One of the unique features of holding a Council meeting via Zoom is that the Council members (and the audience) can watch the facial expressions of all of the online participants.  On June 15 and July 6, Deputy Chief DelBono – the past president of the firefighters’ union who is known for throwing his weight around City Hall – occupied his own little box on the screen.  Could three Council members have feared provoking a scowl (or worse) from the notoriously volatile former union boss if they didn’t vote for AFD?  And could Ms. Ashcraft and Mr. Daysog not have cared, since both have shown they can win elections without having Mr. DelBono in their corner?

The program approved by Council is supposed to be a “pilot” running for one year, so the politicos will get another chance to address the issue when they decide upon a “permanent” fix.  Maybe the fire department’s pilot program will turn out to be so successful that it will convince police-reform advocates and others that paramedics and EMTs are just as good at responding to mental-health calls as the professionals are.  We’ll see.  At this point all we know for sure is that, whenever the new team takes over, the responders still will be wearing uniforms – they just won’t be cops.

Sources:

Non-police response program proposals: 2021-06-15 Correspondence from City Manager

Felton Institute background: 2021-06-15 Ex. 2 to staff report – Felton Institute Justice Service Programs

Unbundling subcommittee letter: 2021-06-15 Subcommittee Letter to City Council

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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4 Responses to Fire wins again

  1. reylagraber says:

    doe anyone know the difference in costs between the Fires Dept and Felton ?
    did cost enter intoit anywhere? Was it brought up? If not why not.

  2. MP says:

    Very heartening to see admirable qualities on display in the three-person majority here, including forgiveness and letting bygones be bygones with regard to the whole Assembly primary endorsement thing, so that nothing gets in the way of the merits on this.

  3. Really says:

    In this case, I prefer the professional standards of firefighters, although I worry that a percentage of the calls could escalate into violence quite rapidly. . The triage I saw in SF consisted of a formerly homeless “specialist” along with a social worker and cop.

    But I have a question about frequency of calls like 5150 or other types of incidents for which they might be called.

    5-10 per month?

  4. dave says:

    The Alameda Fire Department has very publicly displayed their (in)ability to respond to mental health crisis….

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