Ramsey County 911 operators could soon dispatch social and mental health workers, child welfare staff and even nonprofit employees to crisis calls, in one of the most dramatic transformations of the emergency call system since its inception half a century ago.

At a time when communities across the country are rethinking traditional models of policing, Minnesota's second-largest county is trying a fresh approach in which teams of responders, including law enforcement, are trained to help people in crisis, said Scott Williams, Ramsey County's deputy county manager of safety and justice. When a 911 call comes in, civilian co-responders could immediately be dispatched alongside traditional first responders, or even instead of them in some cases.

"We are looking at a more enhanced response model where social services, public health and even community resource staff are going out with law enforcement, going out with fire," said Williams, who said it will build on its existing mental health crisis response.

Communities across the county, including Denver, Los Angeles and San Antonio, are exploring similar models that dispatch social workers alongside or instead of police. In Minnesota, many police departments are already working with co-responders, but usually only after an emergency call comes in.

In Hennepin County, the Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies (COPE) program responds 24 hours a day to people experiencing mental health emergencies, but callers need to dial the program directly. By deploying non-law enforcement resources when a 911 call comes in, Ramsey County will be on the cutting edge.

The expanded emergency response model could change everything from the questions 911 operators ask callers to the mix of responders who show up at the scene. Williams said he anticipates social workers will even work side-by-side with 911 operators, helping them gather information and make quick decisions about whom to send.

The new model is not about pulling resources from traditional first responders; Williams said they will remain the "bedrock" of 911 response.

"We will not send a social worker to a bank robbery," he said.

The Ramsey County Board gave staff permission this month to start preparing for the expanded 911 response model, with plans to use federal COVID-19 dollars to seed the project.

"It's exciting that we can implement real changes to how we respond to crisis calls," said Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo. "This has the potential for being a model statewide."

Gathering community input

County officials wanted to bring community members and other stakeholders into the process early, Williams said, with the goal of launching some of the new responders by the end of 2022. So far, the county has not released any budget estimates.

In many ways, Ramsey County is in a unique position to lead this transformation. The county manages the Emergency Communications Center, which answers about 1 million calls a year — the largest volume in the state — for all of its cities, including St. Paul.

The county also oversees a variety of social services departments and closely partners with St. Paul on its Community-First Public Safety Commission, a group of nearly 50 local leaders and residents who spent a year rethinking the city's approach to public safety, including how the capital city responds to the lowest-priority 911 calls.

"It is about expanding the tools and partnerships together with our police officers that we need to keep our community safe," said County Board Chair Toni Carter, who also sat on the Community-First commission.

Carter said the rollout will occur over time and builds on work already happening. She anticipates some law enforcement pushback.

"There has been an expression of concern for calls being taken by any other resource," Carter said. "At the same time, we hear from our first responders that they need help."

A handful of county social workers is already embedded with the St. Paul and Maplewood police departments and a Ramsey County mental health crisis line, which formed in 2016 and already handles more than a 1,000 calls a year transferred from 911 dispatch.

Roseville Deputy Police Chief Joe Adams said his department and other suburban agencies have tried to expand their response model with an eye toward social workers. He said the collaboration and funding Ramsey County can provide is welcomed and needed.

"We are 100% supportive of this initiative and hope to see it come to fruition soon," he said.

In St. Paul, which makes up the bulk of Ramsey County, police leaders are waiting to learn more about the proposal, said police spokeswoman Sgt. Natalie Davis.

"This seems to be in alignment with the conversations we are having at the city involving co-responder or alternate response to emergency calls," said City Council President Amy Brendmoen. "I expect a rollout like this will take time, but the city will be a partner in moving it ahead, not a barrier."

Pressure on dispatchers

Emergency dispatch is a fast-evolving, high-stress job that will become more demanding as the county adds new categories of responders, officials said. The public, which has become increasingly hostile to 911 operators, will need to understand the new model, which will require operators to ask even more questions.

"Taking 911 call is a tough job," Williams said. "It's a tough environment to be working in."

Williams said there will be additional training and support for operators as this rolls out.

Ramsey County employs about 120 staff in what is called a "two-stage" dispatch center adjacent to St. Paul police headquarters. About 60 telecommunicators answer calls and relay the critical information in real time to the other half of the staff who dispatch and communicate directly with emergency responders.

Vanessa Moralez is one of the calm voices on the line speaking to often-frantic 911 callers. She has been a Ramsey County telecommunicator for two decades and answers hundreds of calls during a 12-hour shift.

Over the years, Moralez said, she has seen her job change dramatically.

"When I started, I literally had a handheld phone that I picked up to answer, and the transfer I did, I have to manually dial the number. Now it's just the click of the mouse," said Moralez, who sits at a workstation behind a bank of large computer monitors in the 911 dispatch center.

And there used to be just one option for mental health-related calls, Moralez said.

"We just sent out police. We didn't have the option of having them talk to crisis or sending an ambulance out," she said. "We sent a squad to go check on them."

In 2016, Ramsey County dispatchers began transferring some of those calls that didn't involve a crime or an immediate threat to the county's mental health crisis line. Moralez estimated the number of mental health calls she handles has doubled since she started.

One of the biggest challenges, she and other dispatchers said, is how some callers treat them. There's more hostility than there used to be.

"They take a significant amount of abuse. They have been called every name in the book," said Nancie Pass, director of the Ramsey County Emergency Communication Center.

Telecommunicator Johany Gonzalez said she joined the profession about a year ago because she wanted a job that helped people. She thinks she's doing that, she said, but some days are challenging.

"Some of these callers, they don't know what we do behind the line," Gonzalez said. "They're sending all their aggressions, and we have to take it all in."

The hostility and the workload may only increase for telecommunicators as protocols become more complex and the list of responders they can dispatch grows.

Despite the challenges, Gonzalez and Moralez said they support changes in how communities respond to emergencies and are prepared for their role in that transformation.

"I feel like we are going in the right direction of getting people the help they need," Gonzalez said.

Staff writer Erin Adler contributed to this report. Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037