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Calgary’s Community Mobile Crisis Response teams showing an early impact

Call diversion program re-routs 3,233 calls in the first year of operation.

While 32 call responses nine weeks into a pilot project might seem insignificant, the broader community impact is invaluable, say the experts involved in Calgary’s mobile crisis response.

In October 2022, the City of Calgary, Calgary Police Service (CPS) and The Alex Community Health Centre struck a partnership to deliver the Community Mobile Crisis Response (CMCR) pilot program.

It’s a program that began in police District 4 in February. In March, it expanded to District 5.

Calls to Calgary 911 are triaged to determine if non-emergency mental health or addiction response is needed. If so, those calls are diverted to 211 Calgary, operated by Distress Centre Calgary. From there, operators determine the type of response needed.

That can include dispatch of the CMCR teams, which consist of a health worker, a peer support worker and a plain-clothes CPS officer.

Jennifer Eyford, Director of Mental Health Addiction and Outreach with The Alex, said the CMCR teams are taking on hard-hitting calls.

It’s when Calgarians in need are at their limit; that could be due to significant mental health and addictions issues, housing instability and not knowing where to turn, she said.

“Often the situations these individuals face are quite complex,” Eyford said.

“The CMCR team was able to provide that really important crisis intervention in the moment, avoiding interaction with emergency services.”

While that’s the first step, Eyford said the second response layer is crucial to determine the find the root cause. Each person CMCR meets has case management follow-up.

“People don’t just experience crisis, because of one thing. They often experience crisis because lots of things are misaligned in their lives,” she said.

“The one response is not necessarily enough to prevent future crisis.”

Call diversion a key component

Initially launched in February 2022, the call diversion component has continued to grow.

Calgary 911 and 211 operators have been co-located in the 911 operations centre. They work together to divert 911 calls from police and other emergency services to a community-based response.

Distress Centre Calgary oversees Calgary 211, and CEO Robyn Romano said thus far they’ve diverted 3,233 calls from 911 to their service. So far in 2023, they’re fielding 435 diverted calls per month.

When the City of Calgary updated program information in June 2022 after the first four months of going live, they’d diverted just 248 total calls (62 per month). They’re seven times that now.

“One of our big learnings was how much time… that it actually takes to grow and develop and change a system and way of working and operating,” Romano said.

She anticipates the call number will continue to grow. The response will probably evolve to include more and different partners, Romano said.

“I think for me, that is probably the number one piece of it, where we will see more partners come to the table,” she said.

“It really takes all of us working together from all systems, all areas of society – so, government, police, community agencies – where we can actually build the best system and provide the best response to individuals in crisis.”

The call increase warrants more resources, too. The Community Safety Investment Framework (City of Calgary and CPS) helped fund the program and that’s allowed for the hiring of 10 additional full-time staff, a team lead and supervisory support.

Romano said the whole shift has created a 911 operations sub-program to allow for the diversion plan’s continued expansion.

Slow build with a big impact

Romano said that some people might see 3,233 calls in a year and say it’s not that much. It’s 3,233 calls that police aren’t responding to.

“That’s an impact for them,” she said.

In the City’s recent release on the response CPS Deputy Chief Katie McLellan acknowledged how having the CMCR program has affected police. (It didn’t specifically address the overall call diversion program, however.)

“The calls CMCR teams are attending would previously have been dispatched to police. Triaging calls to the CMCR teams help deliver critical support to Calgarians in crisis by providing the right resource, to the right person, at the right time,” she said.

“It also helps us to direct our resources to calls that require a police response.”

Romano said something police Supt. Asif Rashid said last summer really stuck with her. He’d mentioned that we’ve criminalized mental health, poverty and homelessness. That’s changed with this system, she said.

“This partnership, this new way of working, we’re really looking at how do we decriminalize social issues,” she said.

Eyford said no one wants to see a Band-Aid solution; dealing with the emergency in the moment and then moving on means that person could experience crisis again.

Even though they’ve only dealt with 32 people, Eyford said the impact is much bigger. She said helping one person in crisis positively impacts the community around them.  That includes immediate family, friends or surrounding neighbours that may be exposed to the situation.

For building a new program, Eyford said their intake is right on par. She said the slow, steady intake shows there’s thought and intention behind the system.

Both Eyford and Romano said as awareness grows, so will the intake.

“I believe word of mouth is really powerful. But that takes time,” Eyford said.