Visiting, and looking into the future of, Seattle’s newest public-safety department, CARE – 911 and more

(WSB photos unless otherwise credited)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Last time we visited the 911 Center downtown, it was 2010, and media was there because SPD was launching a long-since-discontinued service, tweeting about stolen cars.

We visited again last Thursday. The 911 Center is still co-housed with SPD’s West Precinct. But it’s no longer part of SPD – it’s part of the third public-safety department the city now calls CARE (Community Assisted Response and Engagement).

Our visit was intended to be educational, an introduction to what CARE does and where it’s headed. The department also includes the CARE Team, the “crisis responders” introduced last October; they are currently based on the other side of downtown, in a small space on the ground floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower, which houses hundreds of other city workers.

(City of Seattle photo)

We stopped by there too, but perhaps in a testament to the need, the responders were all out on calls. (They work 11 am-11 pm; by 11:30, when we arrived, they were assigned.) Rather than describe the team as an “alternative” mode of response, CARE prefers to say they offer a “diversified” response.

At the 911 Center (which does not dispatch SFD calls – those are referred to that department’s center), we spoke with acting CARE Chief Amy Smith.

It’s been reported that 911 is having staffing challenges. Chief Smith told us that this year’s focus is on retention even more than hiring – improving conditions so the people they have will want to stay. Making it a “more balanced workplace” is key, she explained. For example, she decided to throw holiday parties for the staff, and was shocked to hear “we’ve never had a party.” She said the logistics were challenging but two-thirds of the staff attended one of the events. She saw that in the spirit of team-building, too, they’re “articulating identity now that we are a department … a lot of people had been part of SPD.” But, she insists, the post-separation relationship is a good one.

She said the staff also was heartened by visits from Mayor Bruce Harrell – including one on a Saturday night, when, Smith says, Harrell spent two hours “just listening.” Others have visited too; right after we were there last Thursday, one of the newly elected city councilmembers, Maritza Rivera, stopped by (as shown here in the CARE Department’s X stream).

And it’s vital for the policymakers to see things firsthand. Chief Smith makes an observation you’ve heard from SPD – some of what they’re able to do, or not able to do, is constrained by what happens in other parts of the system. For example, the city-law change last year means police can arrest for drug use, but booking generally isn’t possible, so other types of responses are more necessary than ever.

Meantime, the calls keep coming.

Call-takers and dispatchers are in cubicles, facing multiple screens. Bigger screens on the walls show information such as calls currently being handled, including toplines like how many Priority 1 calls have been dispatched (17 at the moment we looked) as well as how many Priority 2 calls are dispatched/waiting (29/9 at that moment). A soft chime sounds repeatedly through overhead speakers; that means 1 or more 911 callers are on hold.

Seven call-takers and seven dispatchers are on duty, as well as two supervisors – one handling administrative duties, one supervising the dispatchers; though they are assigned to specific areas of the city (by police precinvt – north, east, west, south/southwest), the supervisor listens to them all.

Smith envisions a system where dispatchers would have even more “diversified response” options – “why couldn’t we dispatch the right team” based on what a situation calls for? Smith says she’s involved in a “national conversation” about this – “we’ve been so myopic” until now, trying to fit myriad types of situations into just one type of response. She would like to “design 911 better” and thinks “it should not be a difficult redesign – (with the) mayor and council getting along right now … there’s nothing stopping us” from changes. She notes that the mayor and city auditor are currently “looking at everything adjacent to crime, justice, and safety.”

Smith continues, “We have to figure out what doesn’t work as much as what does.” She returns to the subject of the drug crisis, particularly fentanyl. “It’s everywhere.” And it’s so much more addictive, she says, that the old strategy of expecting someone finally to seek help when they hit rock bottom doesn’t apply – “rock bottom [with fentanyl] will be death.”

Along with a big-picture look at operational philosophy and responses, Smith says technology upgrades are overdue too. They’re finally able to handle 911 texts – what about, someday, video? That could assist a calltaker in assessing the situation and what kind of response is warranted. Of course, adapting the system will have a price tag: “We never invested the way we should have.” They’re catching up, though, with dozens of recent changes, she said, including some AI features. And she is keen to create more of a learning environment. We peeked into a training room that is a smaller version of what’s out on the main floor, used for current staff to learn, as well as for new staff to train.

Even the name of the department is the result of a learning process; when the city originally announced the “third department” plan in 2021, it was the Community Safety and Communications Center; the name changed last year, along with leadership – that’s when Smith took over. Regarding the diversified responses – she is clear that they’re just getting started.

CARE Team crisis responders are only working downtown right now – expanding the staff and the service area will require a budget push yet to come. But Smith’s 911 staff has a citywide responsibility, so she’s seeing the big picture every day. “You can look at the 911 Center as the city’s nerve center and data hub – when the city has a pain, we send a response. Every issue that involves Seattle, the 911 Center hears about it first. The complexity has only increased over time.”

And that’ll continue – now the issue is, as Smith summarizes it, “how to align the city’s public safety investments and resources … optimizing communication and coordination … streamlining and appropriately intervening for a range of problems.”

P.S. You can expect to hear more about that when Smith and the city’s two other public-safety chiefs (SPD’s Adrian Diaz and SFD’s Harold Scoggins) appear at the City Council Public Safety Committee‘s first 2024 meeting one week from today (9:30 am February 13).

23 Replies to "Visiting, and looking into the future of, Seattle's newest public-safety department, CARE - 911 and more"

  • Oerthehillz February 6, 2024 (12:57 pm)

    Excellent, thank you for informing us.

  • Monica Waters-Perez February 6, 2024 (1:23 pm)

    Very timely & helpful info. Thank you, Tracy Record & WSB. Rivetingly written. So great to learn this through the blog!

  • Al King February 6, 2024 (2:13 pm)

    WSB. Where does the CARE team come from? Are they city employees who’ve transferred in or are they hired off the street? What qualifications do they need to have to work for the care team? Do they have a plan/desire that there would be enough people to cover the city 24/7/365?

    • WSB February 6, 2024 (2:26 pm)

      There’s lots of background information linked in the story, both the CARE Team’s own page and the story we ran last year announcing their creation,

      • WSB February 6, 2024 (4:16 pm)

        No, that is NOT a job listing for the CARE Team mentioned in our story. That’s for homelessness response in the Human Services Department, assisting what the mayor’s office currently calls the Unified Care Team, no relation, more a multidepartmental task force.

    • Amy Smith February 7, 2024 (1:14 pm)

      Hi Al, the first team of six responders are new city employees. Four had previously worked for King County Mobile Crisis Team, and two had worked for SPD as community service officers.  They also have a new manager position, which was filled by a supervisor at 911 who also has a master’s in social work. I anticipate the team will grow and expand to cover all seven districts in the next year or so (this is contingent on City Council support and Mayor’s Office support) and I am also working to analyze which other teams might be dispatched from 911 (the community service officers, for example). The CARE crisis responders are trained social workers/mental health professionals who went through 5 weeks of additional training to prepare them to be first responders to 911 calls for service. 

      • We care February 8, 2024 (11:44 am)

        Is there anything the community can do to support your team, Amy? Can we drop off coffee and doughnuts?

  • DC February 6, 2024 (3:50 pm)

    Seems worth mentioning that it’s not just a budget push limiting CARE’s work. The Seattle Police Officers Guild has fought to limit CARE’s work every step of the way, specifically requiring the city only be allowed to hire a maximum of 24 responders.,and%20%E2%80%9CWelfare%20Check%E2%80%9D%20calls.

    • Eric February 7, 2024 (11:43 am)

      SPOG negotiates with the city over CARE responders because it’s both a change of working conditions for its members and the body of work being taken by CARE belongs to them.  That’s how labor law works. 

      • Union Activist February 7, 2024 (2:11 pm)

        Yes, but them fighting over work that could be done by social workers while simultaneously crying about being overworked and understaffed is not a great look.  Just because it’s a mandatory subject of bargaining doesn’t mean the unit members have to fight with everything in them.  I’ve been part of plenty of negotiations where workers say “yes, it makes more sense to parcel that off, and the work that makes sense to be in my jurisdiction will still be protected.”  Plenty of union workers are able to make common-sense choices and only fight against proposals that harm them, SPOG can do it too.

        • Eric February 7, 2024 (8:14 pm)

          All SPOG has to negotiate with is its body of work.  The city doesn’t give its members anything out of the goodness of its heart, why should SPOG be any different ?    

          • Union Activist February 9, 2024 (11:21 am)

            I worked for the city over 15 years and while they got pretty stupid about pay at our last negotiation (thanks Harrell), we have gotten a lot of work condition concessions with very little push back over the years.  SPOG is digging in over jurisdiction for the sake of digging in because they have a victim mentality and that’s how they approach everything.  I wholeheartedly disagree that jurisdiction is their only bargaining chip.  That is just not even close to reality.

  • Jim P. February 6, 2024 (4:11 pm)

    I simply want to know someone will respond when I call in to report an ongoing crime. Has never happened.

    “A soft chime sounds repeatedly through overhead speakers; that means 1 or more 911 callers are on hold.”

    And if that doesn’t terrify you, that it is common enough they built this right into the system, it should.

    You cannot count on rescue or help even if someone is kicking your front door down. “Please hold…” while you scream for help is the stuff of cheezy slasher movies but here it is real.

    • Amy Smith February 7, 2024 (1:25 pm)

      Jim, we are acting with urgency to improve staffing at SPD.  Calls hold when we are out of officers to send, which is why we are working hard to figure out which other types of professionals (like the CARE team) could be sent to lower acuity calls. We also need to educate the public about which calls could instead be an online report, etc. to build capacity in 911 and in first response. I understand your comment!

  • HuskyFan February 6, 2024 (5:20 pm)

    I’m confused why these two operations are combined.  It’s feels like the city is playing a game of three card monte.  The city has two 911 centers.  One operated by the Care department and one by the fire department.  Why are they not combined? Why is the alternative responders combined with one of the 911 centers?  This does not sound like a recipe for operational consistency and instead sounds like a bureaucratic mess.

    • Eric February 7, 2024 (11:52 am)

      Police and Fire have different ways to communicate via radio.  The fire department is much more structured. The police side is more flexible due to the nature of the work.  The fire alarm center is staffed by firefighter dispatchers.  The police side used have at least two or more police officers on duty.  Those positions were negotiated away by the police guild and now it’s staffed by all civilians.  Since the police dispatchers were separated from the police department I don’t believe the work product is as good as it was before.  

      • Amy Smith February 7, 2024 (1:21 pm)

        Hi Eric, since I started leading the department we are again coordinating design and dispatch protocols closely with SPD. Seattle 911 and SPD need to still act as part of the same team. Staffing shortages have plagued both departments, but things are finally starting to trend in a positive direction. 

    • Amy Smith February 7, 2024 (1:18 pm)

      Hi there, in 911 we triage and assess all calls and then determine who to dispatch. If there is a fire or a medical emergency, the call routes to Seattle Fire where they can determine if they want to send Health One, firefighters, use the nurse navigation line, etc. The diversified response teams are being designed in 911 because that is the data hub. We are actually trying to streamline and simplify what has been really convoluted and inefficient. 

  • M February 6, 2024 (7:41 pm)

    Amazing journalism, WSB, love the thoroughness of this interview. Thank you! 

  • Big Dave February 7, 2024 (3:58 pm)

    Nice piece of journalism Tracy. Big thanks to Mayor Harrell and the councilwoman for showing their support for these essential workers. It’s important for the mayor and city council to show appreciation to law enforcement and other first responders. It’s one of many best practices executives use to retain talent. 

  • Sam February 9, 2024 (7:19 am)

    Employees don’t need holiday parties and visits from the mayor. They need unions and better pay.  This job is no joke and takes a toll. 

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