Ramsey County social workers, already embedded with three police agencies, will partner with St. Paul Fire and 911 dispatchers in the most significant evolution of the emergency call system since its inception half a century ago.

The county will deploy 10 social workers to work alongside first responders, up from six already embedded with St. Paul, Roseville and Maplewood police. One will soon be paired with the fire department, and plans are underway to add three more to the 911 emergency communications center early next year.

"This is really about increasing community wellness," said Jessica Kisling, who oversees the embedded social workers as Ramsey County's mental health crisis services manager. "People are very committed to seeing this work happen."

A year ago, county commissioners approved the creation of a new emergency response team of social workers and others, at a time when local governments across the country were starting to rethink policing and emergency response in the wake of George Floyd's murder and other high-profile police killings of unarmed Black people. The county had already made some investments in social workers in recent years.

The primary goal is to improve quality of life and reduce unnecessary use of the emergency health care system by addressing needs before crisis, according to the county. Community leaders have stressed that police and fire remain the "bedrock" of the region's emergency response.

St. Paul and suburban leaders have advocated for embedded social workers and helped fund them. The total cost of placing seven social workers with police and fire is $840,000, of which $240,000 is funded by Ramsey County through grants while the remainder is provided by partner cities. The cost of the 911 dispatch positions is $360,000, to be paid for with Ramsey County's federal pandemic aid allocation.

"We are making investments in our public safety systems that are based on making investments in people's lives," said St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen. "Instead of a short-term fix than nets little long term change ... we are working to get at the root of our most vulnerable community members' challenges and seek ways to improve their lives in a lasting way."

Dwayne Gibbs, team coordinator for St. Paul Fire's Community Alternative Response Emergency Services (CARES), said social workers partnering with firefighters makes sense. A firefighter with a social services background, he said social workers have the time and expertise to take "a softer approach" when responding to people struggling with mental health issues, addiction, bereavement or family problems.

"In St. Paul, we are typically the first to respond to people with mental health and behavioral emergencies," Gibbs said. "That makes up 13% of our call volume."

A big part of this new approach is data collection to better understand immediate needs and systems failures that have to be addressed, he said.

Social workers already partnered with police departments say they've been welcomed by first responders and the community.

"We have found [the social workers'] value is incredible and their ability to solve problems is incredible," said Maplewood Police Lt. Mike Dugas. "They are warmly regarded and supported by our emergency responders."

Maplewood police started partnering with social workers in April 2021, after the suburb's public safety division formed a mental health outreach team comprising police officers and community paramedics to work with frequent 911 callers.

During the team's first year, social workers responded to 164 scenes with police and fire and followed up on hundreds of more cases, Dugas said. He has seen firsthand how social worker intervention can help people get back on track, he said, from finding an individual shelter and stabilizing their health to reducing the frequency and cost of the emergency response they require.

Maplewood first responders are now required to indicate if a call has a mental health component. In a year, nearly 1,600 police and fire calls were labeled as mental health-related, Dugas said.

"The demand for social services in the first-ring suburbs continues to be understood," he said. "It is far more than we ever thought."

Social worker Amy Lathrop said she typically responds to or follows up on calls of people in crisis, suicide attempts, welfare checks and domestic violence. She wears sneakers and business casual clothing with Ramsey County and Maplewood police identification badges. She drives her own SUV, though she sometimes rides with police. At times, she will slip on a Kevlar vest labeled "social worker" when she's in a squad vehicle and responding to higher-risk calls.

Early on, she said, she makes it clear that she's not a police officer.

"We are pretty transparent. We will say, 'We work for Ramsey County, but we are embedded with Maplewood Public Safety as social workers. We are reaching out to you not because you are in trouble but we want to make sure you have everything you need,' " Lathrop said.

The response has been positive, she said.

"A lot of people will be taken aback and they'll be like, 'Really? This is kind of cool,' " Lathrop said. "Folks feel cared for in a different way and seen in a different way."