Shelby County Fire dispatchers get training to handle pandemic-related mental health calls

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dispatchers with the Shelby County Fire Department have received additional training to deal with the mental health issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Shelby County Fire Department said this week 16 dispatchers received nationally recognized training to handle a wide variety of mental health, behavioral emergency, and suicide calls.

“When residents call 911, we want them to receive the appropriate response and service that they need. Mental health emergencies are complex and often require a specialized response that starts with the dispatcher,” said Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris. “I applaud the Shelby County Fire Department for their focus on continuous training of dispatchers to provide first responders with the information they need to respond to these emergencies.”

County leaders said because of the pandemic, mental health crises from anxiety, depression, and loneliness are on the rise across the country. The Shelby County Fire Department has also seen an increase locally.

The fire department said it handles about 17,000 911 calls a year, and since March of 2020, they have received around 1,400 COVID-19 related calls.

“About 50 times a day someone picks up the phone up and dials 911, and that’s an environment where we have to get folks dispatched and on the way properly to any known emergency,” said Brett Perkins, spokesperson for the Shelby County Fire Department. “So, this very much is a part of what we do, but we are changing people’s thought processes so they match up with what’s going on with the pandemic,”

The fire department said dispatchers who completed the course will be even better trained to answer mental health emergency calls.

Shelby County Fire Chief Alvin Benson said dispatchers are a critical link in the department’s emergency response.

“This training will help ensure that our staff can follow an appropriate protocol to de-escalate situations when possible and ascertain the right information to help first responders as they respond to mental health crises,” said Benson.

The training was provided by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch.

Upon completion of the course test, dispatchers will be certified in Medical Priority Dispatch System Protocol for psychiatric care, abnormal behavior, and suicide attempts.

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