Enabling first responders to better support those in crisis

A cohort of Crisis Intervention Team graduates

Today, an innovative, community-based training program is equipping first responders in the Mat-Su to support people experiencing behavioral health crises. While encounters between people in crisis and first responders may bear a risk of escalation, arrests, and a deepening cycle of crisis, first responders are now better able to turn these encounters into opportunities to connect people with vital support services.

A first responder training that’s changing lives

A coalition of first responders brought the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Academy Training to the Mat-Su in 2015. Designed to increase safety and get people connected to support, CIT training programs exist in many communities across the country. They equip first responders—like police, firefighters, and EMTs—with tools to engage more effectively with people in distress. At its core is a 40-hour training in which first responders learn to:

  • Recognize common signs and symptoms of mental illness
  • Safely de-escalate crisis situations
  • Engage with people in ways that are non-threatening
  • Connect people with community resources

“Public service goes a lot further than just finding a violation of law and taking people to jail,” said Ryan Anderson, an Alaska State Trooper who was among the first attendees of the CIT trainings in Mat-Su. “Sometimes we’re that first line of contact for people, and it’s our opportunity to actually get them connected to resources—and make the difference between them having a bad day or a worse day.”

When the program started, fewer than 20% of behavioral health related 911 calls were responded to by someone with behavioral health crisis training. Today 150 first responders in and near the Mat-Su Borough, including Alaska State Troopers, State Officers, and local police, have the skills to address these moments of crisis.

CIT has changed the way many first responders do their jobs. Instead of responding to a behavioral health crisis with confrontation and moving toward an arrest, they’ll now instead use de-escalation tactics taught and reinforced at the academy training. 

Forging connections between first responders and behavioral health services

Mat-Su’s CIT Coalition has built positive, ongoing relationships between law enforcement, mental health providers, hospital emergency services, and many other community-based services. As a result, first responders are well educated on the support systems available and can often make a warm hand-off of the client to crisis support services when appropriate.

CIT has been vital to improving the care of our community members. In addition to creating more compassionate interactions between law enforcement and community members in crisis, it has been a catalyst for growth and new initiatives:

  • A CIT training program is now available to meet growing demand.
  • A program was formed to address repeat ER visitors, connecting them with resources to move them out of a cycle of crisis and into community-based care.
  • A Mat-Su mobile crisis team, consisting of a trained clinician and a peer support specialist, is now available to respond to emergency behavioral health calls, with the backup of a CIT-trained law enforcement officer.

Mat-Su Health Foundation has been proud to not only financially support the training program, but also to facilitate ongoing networking between local law enforcement, emergency services, and service providers. This work is closely connected to our vision for all Mat-Su residents to have access to the best healthcare possible. We are working for Mat-Su to be the healthiest borough: and for that to happen, we must be the most healthcare-accessible borough. The CIT training academy program is one way it’s becoming a reality.