Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) When Missoula's Mobile Support Team increased its hours of service last year, calls to a mental health crisis began to climb. Over the last two months, they've nearly doubled.

Now two years old, the nascent program remains in flux, though its successes have been punctuated by the people it has helped and the money it has saved, be it time in jail or trips to the emergency department.

It also has boosted the moral of the city's police and fire crews, who now know they have help responding to some of the city's most challenging calls, members of the Missoula City Council were told this week.

“This team has been able to help change that atmosphere,” said John Petroff, operations manager of the Mobile Support Team and a member of the fire department. “It's another resource for law enforcement. It's another resource for fire and emergency services. It's something they can rely on, at least 10 hours a day, to help with.”

When Petroff first began the job, the Mobile Support Team was responding to as few as 20 calls a month. But with an investment from the city and county, service increased last year to seven days a week, and the call volume began to rise, surpassing the 100-mark last May.

Ever since, it has never dropped below that point and over the last two months, it has topped 225 monthly calls. The increase in need has placed greater pressure on a program still finding its feet.

“Crisis intervention is something I believe that needs to happen in our city to really be successful in crisis response,” said Petroff. “For the Mobile Support Team, we're still at 10 hours. We're hoping to increase that to 14 hours a day at the beginning of the year. It's going to cost money. And as our calls increase, we need to make sure we have the staff to follow up and do that work.”

The program works by blending a wide group of partners and directing their expertise to help a person in crisis. The program lives within the Missoula Fire Department, and the Mobile Support Team responds to crisis calls.

At times, however, it could involve the Missoula Police Department or other emergency services, and it nearly always involves Partnership Health Center. Depending on the client, other services may come into play, from homeless services to medical care.

What's missing, experts say, is the funding to fully ramp up the program. The city also lacks a crisis receiving center, though efforts to open one are in the works. In July, Missoula County approved an agreement with the Western Montana Mental Health Center and directed grant funding toward that effort.

“We need that crisis receiving center,” said Petroff. “We don't have another place now. It will help us be successful and reduce costs in the future.”

The latest data found that the average response time for the Mobile Support Team was just under 10 minutes, and the average time on scene has risen to 1 hour and 15 minutes.

The program has diverted 783 calls from the emergency department this year, saving $1.6 million in costs. It also diverted 123 calls from the county jail, saving $14,500, given the cost of a bed in the jail. Around 70% of those needing the team's presence were housed and 30% were homeless.

Case providers working with the program also provided more than 1,000 calls to check in on a person's progress or direct them to follow-up services. That part of the program will soon be understaffed given the growing number of people needing support.

The city in recent months has focused much of its attention on homeless shelters and services, and it's looking to the crisis services levy this November as a potential source of funding. But the Crisis Intervention Team and Mobile Support Team would also benefit from the funding provided by the levy, were voters to approve it.

“Hopefully with the levy funding, if it passes, we can look at this work in a more permanent and comprehensive way,” said City Council member Stacie Anderson. “The services you're providing to the people who are in crisis in our community are invaluable.”

The Mobile Support Team will also need a facility from which to operate as it grows. It's currently housed in the bay of a fire station, which advocates said isn't an ideal location, especially during winter months.

“What we're really looking for would be 24 hours of coverage,” said Brad Davis, assistant chief of the Missoula Fire Department. “The Mobile Support Team would have a facility they could live in and respond from.”