Few 911 operators trained to handle behavioral health crises: survey

Few 911 operators trained to handle behavioral health crises: survey
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A Pew survey published Tuesday found that most 911 operators lack training in how to handle behavioral health crises and have limited options in responding to crisis calls in general.

Despite expert recommendations, few of the call centers Pew reached had offered training for responding to behavioral health crises or used behavioral health clinicians to help them handle incoming crisis calls, the survey found.

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Pew sent questionnaires to 233 call centers nationwide and received 37 responses total.

At 25 of those centers, call-takers and dispatchers had not undergone specialized crisis intervention team training (CIT) or training in how to respond to incidents related to mental health or substance use. The other 12 responding centers reported their operators had received CIT training and, at two of those centers, had additionally been through unspecified behavioral health training.

Survey respondents also said they experienced limitations in terms of which teams they could dispatch to a given crisis. Fewer than half of the participants in the survey said that they had access to mobile crisis response teams, which are composed of police officers, clinicians, social workers, and other field responders, according to Pew.

More than 20 centers also reported they did not have access to behavioral health clinicians at all, the survey found.

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"To develop best practices for these emergencies—including possible alternatives to arrest or other criminal justice responses—it is crucial to identify, understand, and address crisis response system deficits," Pew said of the results.

In addition to the lack of training and response options, respondents noted that data-sharing was impeded because no consistent, uniform mechanisms were in place. Pew noted this could also contribute to an incomplete understanding of the scope of behavioral health problems in communities. 

Pew, which collaborated with the National Emergency Number Association for this research, added that many respondents wanted to improve the 911 system's handling of crises but were limited by issues ranging from budgeting problems to accessibility to training and health services, as well as staff shortages and other problems.