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NYC expands program that sends EMTs, social workers to mental health calls

Recent statistics show dispatchers routed 25% of the 2,400 mental health calls from January to March 2022 – not the 50% of calls the program promised


The B-HEARD pilot program, started in 2020, sends teams of EMTs and social workers to mental health calls.

Photo/NYC Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health

By Anne Berleant

NEW YORK — One year into a New York Police Department pilot program to reduce police 911 responses to mental health calls, Mayor Eric Adams has announced plans to expand the program from four Harlem precincts to 11 throughout Manhattan and The Bronx, The City reported.

The Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division, known as B-HEARD, aims to reduce the number of police responses to 911 mental health calls by instead sending teams of EMTs and social workers trained in de-escalation techniques. Under B-HEARD, NYPD dispatchers route mental health calls to FDNY communications, where their dispatchers determine if the call warrants a B-HEARD response.

New York first tried pairing police officers with social workers in co-responder units but the program was never linked to 911 and was limited in scope, according to The City. In 2020, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the B-HEARD zero-cop teams of EMTs and social workers.

“We have more than doubled the B-HEARD pilot area and we’re not just talking about it,” Adams said. “We’re putting the money there: a $55 million investment.”

But recent statistics city hall released that show dispatchers routed 25% of the 2,400 mental health calls from January to March 2022 – not the 50% of calls the program promised. In the first 10 months of the B-HEARD program, the teams’ response rate had dropped from 20% to 18%.

And it’s difficult for B-HEARD to keep up with the calls routed their way, The City reported. In June 2021, the teams responded to 80% of mental health calls routed to them, but that number had dropped to a 68% response rate in the first three months of 2022, according to the latest report. This percentage was due to the fact that B-HEARD teams were responding to another call, according to the report. As a result, dispatchers then routed those calls to NYPD officers.

City hall officials said they’re planning on assigning additional staff to B-HEARD, although the proposed expansion is occurring while first responder positions become more difficult to fill.

“You have to understand that we are short staffed. People are leaving this job in droves,” Oren Barzilay, president of the Fire Department EMS Local 2507 said. The FDNY has put out a request for more EMTs to take the required training, which includes self-defense and de-escalation techniques.

The data also shows the number of people assisted by B-HEARD who end up in emergency rooms instead of diversion centers has increased since the program debuted — from 46% in the June to November 2021 period to 59% from January through March 2022.