How a Crisis Car pilot program pairs three disciplines to respond to behavioral emergencies
The goal is for all three disciplines to work as a team, collaboratively to solve the problem in the street and find the best possible outcome for the person in need
By Todd Bowman
In July 2021, as a problem-solving initiative, the Frederick (Maryland) Police Department introduced the crisis response program. The program, partnering law enforcement, EMS and a mental health professional in a specialized response vehicle, known as the “crisis car” will leave new tracks in 2022 after being granted federal funds.
“Taking someone to jail for behaving aggressively when they were in the middle of a mental health emergency was simply ending the problem for that moment. People who really needed treatment were instead getting court cases,” Frederick Police Department Chief Jason Lando said. “The concept of the Crisis Car is simple: When someone is in crisis, what they need most is a mental health specialist. Sometimes, they also need emergency medical care. Because these situations can be unpredictable and do have the potential to turn violent, police are often still needed to help ensure everyone's safety.”
The goal, Lando emphasized, is for all three disciplines to work as a team, collaboratively to solve the problem in the street and find the best possible outcome for the person in need.
“This program has opened up a plethora of options to better mitigate behavioral health crisis on the streets thanks to the care coordination that the mobile crisis car provides by just arriving on the scene,” said Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Chief Thomas Coe.
A special response vehicle, multifaceted partnership
In late December 2021, the Frederick Police Department was awarded grant funding from the Department of Justice in the amount of $280,000 to help expand the program.
During the pilot phase of the program (July 2021-December 31, 2021) the program operated for four hours per day, five days a week. January 2022 marks the start of expanding the program to eight hours per day, five days a week, for a total of 40 hours per week.
“The car will be staffed Monday through Friday for eight hours per day. We have a plan in place to fund a specialized response vehicle that will serve as a mobile office for the team,” Lando said. “In the future, I would love to see this team operational seven days per week for the majority of the day and evening. That will take a lot of planning and coordination among all three agencies.”
Scott Rose, chief of rehabilitation and recovery services at Sheppard Pratt, the largest private, nonprofit provider of mental health, substance use, developmental disability, special education and social services in the country, said he believes this pilot program may be replicated in other jurisdictions in Maryland as well as other states.
“For a number of years, many regions have been pairing mental health counselors with law enforcement, and many regions have more recently been pairing mental health counselors with EMS,” Rose said. But having all three disciplines in an unmarked car is, to the best of our knowledge, rare – and extremely effective. Having mental health counselors paired with law enforcement only is great, but without EMS, it can leave a void because it limits some options of response.”
Maryland’s Congressman David Trone, Senator Chris Van Hollen, Senator Ben Cardin, and Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor took an active initiative in support of the program.
What types of calls the Crisis Car responds to
Currently, the Crisis Car is a City of Frederick initiative and only self-dispatches to calls within the city limits.
“We have a great relationship with the Frederick County Sheriff's Office and if they specifically ask for our Crisis Car to assist in a given situation, we are always glad to help,” Lando said.
Coe added, “this program is a true success story on how cross-agency relationships and initiatives truly benefit the citizens we serve.”
The response team is comprised of a Frederick police officer, a Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Service EMT or paramedic and a mental health specialist from Sheppard Pratt.
The team monitors fire, rescue and police radio dispatches for calls for services.
“These calls range from suicidal individuals to overdoses to reports of someone behaving erratically,” Lando said. “Now that we are expanding the program, one of our next steps will be to bring our 911 center into the fold and develop criteria for formally dispatching the team.”
Trauma, mental health training
Lando added that he wants to ensure his first responders approach these types of calls with the right mindset, so training is important.
“We collaborate regularly with the Frederick County Health Department and Frederick County Mental Health Association (MHA). All of our teams meet monthly to discuss best practices as well as other related programs we currently have in the works. Additionally, one of the staff members from MHA handles training the police officers and medical personnel working the Crisis Car in the area of trauma-informed care,” Lando said.
“We are lucky in Frederick County to have progressive agencies that work extremely well together and aren't afraid to be creative,” Lando said. “The pilot phase was an opportunity for us to determine what worked and what didn't before we expanded the hours.”
This would not have been possible if it weren't for people like Chief Tom Coe (DFRS), Lt. Steve Corbett (FPD) Scott Rose (Sheppard Pratt), Mayor O'Connor (City of Frederick), and other key partners who saw the need and wanted to be a part of the solution, added Lando.
Chief Lando also wanted to thank Frederick Police Captain Kirk Henneberry, Lt. Steve Corbett and Sgt. Joe Palkovic, who oversee the program, and all members of the co-responder team who staff the car on a daily basis.
“Over the course of my career, I have responded to countless calls for people suffering mental health emergencies. Many times, I felt ill-equipped as a police officer to deal with the situation. I always did my best to de-escalate situations and try to talk people into getting help, but 16 hours of training in the police academy pales in comparison with the training a mental health clinician receives,” Lando said.
“Often, individuals who really need some form of treatment would end up getting arrested, and many times the arrest would result in a use of force. I do not fault the officers. They do the best they can with the tools they have, but often, that tool ended up being a pair of handcuffs. We were not really solving anything making some of these arrests.”
My advice to anyone looking to start a program like this is to just do it. It's amazing how much support you will get from your community and how things will come together once you get things off the ground, Lando added.
“The multi-disciplinary crisis team model is what we all want when we are experiencing a crisis in our lives: to be protected (law enforcement), comforted (mental health) and healed (EMS),” Rose said.
About the author
Todd Bowman received his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He is a nationally registered and critical care paramedic in Maryland with 18 years of prehospital experience. Follow him on social media at @_toddbowman.