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App helps first responders help people in health crises

Families can create a profile on the app for their loved ones, which includes information about their disability.
App helps first responders help people in health crises
Posted at 7:10 PM, Mar 10, 2023

When you make that call to 911 there are only minutes, sometimes seconds, for a decision to be made. So when a 911 operator has extra information, call takers say it can change the outcome of a stressful situation.

"It was said that he has some memory loss issues. If he's said overly confused and he's a little bit escalated it told us how to calm him down which is contacting his daughter," says one operator about a ficticious person being used to demonstrate how the Vitals app works.

The technology that allows a vulnerable person or their caregiver to provide first responders with critical information about medical conditions, disabilities, and mental health challenges. They can even provide de-escalation cues and techniques, and behavior triggers.

"In this situation it's really easy to just be able to, hey I'll make that phone call for you instead of getting the officers there and making sure there's no crimes being committed and then having the officers making that phone call, it cuts that middle step out," the operator tells us.

"It's no longer call for service, press a button, send a police officer, it's send the right person," says Jeff Swoboda, the Fort Collins, Colorado Police Chief.

The Fort Collins, Colorado Police Department and University of Colorado Health partnered a year ago, becoming the first in the nation to focus on co-responders with this app. It's a model for behavioral health crisis response that's becoming more common with police departments and mental health professionals.

"The app allows us to get videos of mom saying ya know Johnny this is okay this officer is here to help you he's going to bring you back to me, I mean that's invaluable," Swoboda said.

Swoboda considers the last year a success and he's hoping more departments follow suit and implement it into their work.

SEE MORE: How effective are mental health apps?

The CDC says that up to one in four adults in the US have some type of disability. That includes everything from mobility, to cognition, to independent living, to hearing, vision and self-care.

"They deserve to have a safe interaction and there's been too many scenarios too many incidents where there has been bad outcomes because people misread cues, people didn't take the time to learn," Swoboda said.

Beyond the titles of mother and special education teacher, Jeni Arndt is also the Mayor of Fort Collins.

"I was already a teacher of special needs when Henry was born. Very bright and has some social problems and eventually got the label of Asperger's," Arndt said. "This just gives me as a mom and as a mayor a really great peace of mind."

Before the existence of this app, her son got involved with police after they accidentally associated him with an incident he happened to be near. She says had this app existed back then, the responding officers could have known his anxiety ridden response was related to his disability.

"And you want to calm a situation down so you take that person out which makes sense to me but it is also very confusing for Henry to be in the back of the police car with handcuffs on when he knew he hadn't broken a law," Arndt said.

She says this app not only creates safer interactions, but it sends a larger message to families like hers.

"Really I can't really talk about this without crying. It makes me just well up because to have a police service care enough to want to add those special touches, to calm someone down or defuse a situation is exactly where I think community safety and policing is at its best," Arndt said.

"If we know that there are people who under stress maybe act a certain way, if we can understand that before we interact with them, boy that's better for everyone," Swoboda said. "In the end I believe apps like vitals will save lives."

The Vitals app is currently active at departments in Minnesota, Ohio, Massachusetts, California, Missouri, and Colorado. Those in Fort Collins hope more places adopt it, fostering cultural change in community policing.

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