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County crisis response team comes to fruition

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | September 10, 2021 7:00 AM

A new breed of first responders will soon hit the streets in Lincoln County.

Aided by a grant from the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, local officials plan to jump-start a crisis response team (CRT) by mid-September. The program is intended to assist law enforcement in response to incidents involving substance abuse and mental illness. With a CRT in place, dispatchers will be able to send trained mental health providers to emergencies along with other first responders.

Vanessa Williamson, the county probation officer who spearheaded the initiative, said the $116,850 award would help purchase equipment and pay the responders’ wages for a year. Justice Court Judge Jay Sheffield put his weight behind the program, saying it could help de-escalate crises and keep residents, who possibly would benefit from treatment programs, out of jail.

“The ability to call in a mental health professional while [law enforcement is] roadside or in a house dealing with someone who’s in a major mental crisis is invaluable,” Sheffield told commissioners during a July 7 meeting. In many domestic disturbance cases, Williamson and Sheffield said family members are hesitant to call the police out of fear that the offender could be arrested or jailed. With a crisis response team in place, residents might be more likely to seek help for loved ones by calling 911.

Libby Police Chief Scott Kessel has shown support for the program, saying that in certain crisis response cases it would be more appropriate for mental health providers rather than law enforcement to make first contact. Organizers of the response team have held at least two successful meetings with patrol officers to let them know what to expect from the CRT. Williamson said CRT organizers had around 10 licensed mental health providers or licensure candidates sign up for the program.

Williamson along with Mavis Vaillancourt, Amy Fantozzi, Clara Riddle, Sean Carlin, Randy Guinard and Kayla Friss will be working on the team. Williamson said responders would likely rotate through 12-hour call shifts.

While the CRT vehicle will be based in southern Lincoln County, organizers are partnering with mental health providers in the Eureka area.

Funds from the DPPHS grant also will help local officials host a 40-hour crisis intervention training course in June of next year. Williamson, who attended an intervention course in Helena and helped coordinate one in Kalispell, said the training is designed for all professionals who could encounter crises while on the job. “The training will be available to anyone who wants to send folks,” said Williamson. “We don’t want it just all law enforcement, we want a good mixture from different organizations across the county.” Suicide intervention, substance abuse and developmental disabilities are among the topics covered in the training.

Williamson said both the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and Libby Police Department have backed the program. Sgt. Luke Hauke and Police Sgt.

Christopher Pape have completed the training.

A budget Williamson presented to county commissioners allocates $107,050 of the grant total to jump-starting the response team. Of that, local officials put aside $12,400 for office supplies. Organizers expect to spend $41,000 for a response vehicle.

Setting up a phone line for crisis assistance will cost around $2,250. Paying mental health providers to staff the team will require around $51,400.

The remaining $9,800 of the grant will allow local officials to pay for the costs associated with hosting training.

The county will have to put up a $170,126 match for the grant, covered by office space, vehicle use and employee time.