SALT LAKE CITY — A lawmaker's proposal to make Utah the first state to train emergency medical technicians specifically for responding to mental health emergencies received early support in a state Senate committee Wednesday.
SB53 would allow EMTs and firefighters to be trained to respond to mental health calls. Then, agencies throughout the state could form teams made up of those trained EMTs, who would be dedicated specifically to mental health emergencies.
Bill sponsor Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he believes Utah will be the first state to implement such a program.
"I believe that this will absolutely change the way that we provide service to those experiencing substance use or mental health issues," Thatcher told members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday.
Mental health EMT teams would not take on the role of therapists. Instead, they would triage people and help them find the resources they need, Thatcher said.
"They will not have the authority to administer drugs or to diagnose," Thatcher said. "They will give us a tiered response system that better resembles what we provide for physical health issues through 911."
"It's long overdue, and the department is supportive, and I personally am very committed to making sure this works," said Guy Dansie, Utah's EMS program director.
I believe that this will absolutely change the way that we provide service to those experiencing substance use or mental health issues.
–Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City
Should the bill pass, his department would develop the training for first responders.
Some states, including Utah, use mobile crisis outreach teams. But the crisis teams in the area reported backlogs on their shifts that require them to hurry between calls.
"Right now, we're sending police to some, which does not always give us the best outcome, and we're sending EMS to the rest. But we're sending EMS that are trained for physical crises, not for mental or behavioral (crises)," Thatcher recently told the Deseret News.
Mobile crisis outreach teams also only serve along the Wasatch Front, but the whole state faces impacts from the ongoing mental health crisis, Dansie noted.
"I think this is one step to help alleviate that problem," Dansie said.
Under the bill, no agencies or localities would be required to hire responders trained in behavioral emergency services, Thatcher said.
It's long overdue, and the department is supportive, and I personally am very committed to making sure this works.
–Guy Dansie, Utah EMS program director
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, called the bill "critical."
"I think having qualified, trained individuals just to triage the emergency at that point is needed," she said.
When asked why he proposes creating a separate training speciality rather than making the mental health training part of standard EMT training, Thatcher said EMT training already consists of a packed curriculum, and adding a mental health specialty to it would double its duration.
In 2022, a mental health hotline — 988 — will become active across the country after recent federal legislation, Thatcher noted. If the bill Thatcher is proposing passes, those who dial 988 or 911 could be given help from a mental health-specific EMT team, he said.
Sending EMTs to help those experiencing mental health emergencies won't put the first responders in additional danger, as law enforcement will continue responding to calls involving domestic violence or risk of violence along with the trained EMTs, according to Thatcher.
A process already exists in the state by which dispatchers determine whether to send police officers, firefighters, an ambulance or a combination of responders to an emergency call. The proposed bill would not change that process, Thatcher said.
Sometimes, a person experiencing a mental health crisis is dangerous enough in that moment that they need to be taken to jail to see a therapist there, Thatcher said in an interview.
"But someone needs to be able to make that call, and so that's where we believe these behavioral response units will give better outcomes than a standard EMS," he said.
Standardizing crisis intervention training
The senator is also proposing SB47, which would standardize crisis intervention training for law enforcement across the state, as agencies each have their own versions of it.
"We create a council where the different interests can come together, can work out their own policies ... without the Legislature having to put it into statute," Thatcher told the Senate committee on Wednesday.
For the first time, according to Thatcher, it would create consensus among agencies. He said it doesn't affect treatment or hospital procedures but only law-enforcement crisis intervention training programs.
"When you're talking about a crisis intervention, you're talking about a team that is trained specifically to engage on a very specific, very focused mental health capacity level, and the crisis intervention is absolutely critical," said Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi.
"This is critical. This is going to help a big need," he said.
Anderegg asked what would happen if the council "went off the rails" in its decisions. Thatcher said whatever happens in the council will later need to be approved in the Legislature.
Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, asked whether counties should instead be able to develop crisis intervention training standards on their own.
"Where you have best practices, they should be established as best practices and all practitioners should be held to those same standards," Thatcher responded.
David Spatafore, speaking on behalf of Utah Chief of Police Association, called the bill an "important" step forward. He said chiefs and sheriffs, along with behavioral health experts, will be able to lay out best practices through the council.
"And that really ought to be on a statewide basis rather than a county basis," Spatafore said.
Both of Thatcher's bills received unanimous support from the Senate committee and will move to votes in the full Senate.