Suffolk gears up for Marcus Alert implementation

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, June 12, 2024

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Suffolk is on track to implement the state-mandated Marcus Alert System on July 1, joining over 20 cities and counties, such as Virginia Beach and Newport News. The state mandate requires each city and county in Virginia to have this system implemented by July 1, 2028. 

Detailed during Suffolk City Council’s Wednesday, June 5 meeting at City Hall, Marcus Alert will be handled in Suffolk as a collaboration between the Western Tidewater Community Services Board, Suffolk Police Department, and Suffolk Fire and Rescue. Named after Marcus David-Peters, a black Richmond teacher who was killed by police during a mental health crisis in 2018, the alert currently has been mandated into 10 localities across Virginia to enhance services for people suffering from mental health, substance use, or developmental disability crises. With coordination between 911 and regional crisis call centers, the major goal of Marcus Alert is to provide an appropriate behavioral health response to behavioral health crises. 

Breaking down the system, WTCSB Director of Acute Care Crisis Services Staci Young explained that the alert’s protocols focus on diverting behavioral health calls from 9-1-1 to Regional Crisis Call Centers with the 9-8-8 infrastructure, having formalized agreements between law enforcement and mobile crisis teams and having a law enforcement “specialized response” when responding to behavioral health calls.

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“We all know right now that the state of mental health in our country, as well as in Virginia, is something that we all should be talking about and looking at,” Young said. “We know that the TDOs (Temporary Detention Order) and the ECO (Emergency Custody Order) rates are astronomically high and we also know that the need for education and to serve our consumers is a little bit different.”

Detailing the three protocols further, SPD Captain Jesse Epperson noted that Protocol 1 focuses on the diversion at Emergency Communications to the 988 number for Level 1 and Level 2 calls (with the reverse as well). Policies on the response focus use of force and de-escalation, implicit bias, officer wellness and community policing. Epperson also detailed the training.

“So our police officers, our communications operators, they go to CIT [Crisis Intervention Team] training. They’re trained on [the] very basics with the Marcus Alert System. We’ve accomplished that in the last month and a half or so, specifically getting ready for rollout,” Epperson said. “Crisis Intervention Team training is very important to the police department.”

Epperson says that with SPD’s goal of 20 percent of the department to be CIT certified, SPD is currently “42 percent.” Likewise, on their goal to have 100 percent Communication Operators to be CIT certified, they are currently at “90 percent.” Young also says that discussions were held with SPD, SFR and WTCSB to develop a co-response model, with SFR partnering with WTCSB to form the Marcus co-response team and community paramedicine program in April 2023.

“We chose the community paramedicine and behavioral health co-response model. That also didn’t mean that law enforcement was off the table. Law enforcement was seen as a secondary resource to us, that had to update their policies and procedures,” she said. “Again, they are still going to be our partners on this, but going with the spirit of what the Marcus Alert legislation was is that a behavioral health response should not be a law enforcement response [primarily]. So, even though law enforcement always will be our partner, they’re not necessarily going to be always the front-run.”

Detailing MARC [Medical Access and Resources for the Community], Paramedicine Coordinator and SFR Captain Ray Willet detailed it is a co-response team of WTCSB and SFR, with a behavioral health clinician and CIT Trained Paramedic. WTCSB provides a trained clinician for behavioral health crises, while SFR provides a paramedic with CIT training.

“What we’re going to do is we’re going to place a paramedic in a vehicle with a mental health clinician and start responding to 988 calls and also 911 calls that involve mental health,” Willet said. “…So we have two key components: the mandate is Marcus Alert, so that is our primary mission. We are going to place a unit in service 40 hours a week, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and we’re going to respond to any calls for service for Marcus Alert.”

Detailing the Community Paramedicine portion of MARC, Willet says that it will be community-driven with SFR paramedics taking the lead with a WTCSB clinician as their partner. The Community Paramedicine will focus on issues for patients with mental health aspects such as stress and food scarcity as well as aging in place needs, home risk assessments, home safety, MVP (Multi-Visit Patients) overuse and 911 dependency needs for the system. Along with a vehicle being purchased as a licensed medical vehicle, salaries being supported by WTCSB and the Marcus Alert Coordinator salary being supported by the City, CIT and Marcus Alert Coordinator Shelly Shelton detailed that monthly meetings will be held with SPD, SFR and WTCSB on the “1st Tuesday of every month” along with quarterly stakeholder meetings with community partners.

“This past Tuesday, we did invite Isle of Wight, Southampton and Franklin to join these meetings because they are required to follow Protocol 1, which is the 988 diversion, so we had invited them as of this Tuesday,” Shelton said. “So they will start attending those meetings as well because they fall under our catchment area.”

During City Council comments, Council Member Leroy Bennett noted the excitement from each of the team members at the presentation.

“I can see how excited all eight of you are standing there about this program and I think everyone that hear about it will be just as excited as you are. And I think that this is a great tool that the city has been needing for a long time…,” Bennett said. “We’re looking forward to being a partner with you all as much as we can, to do whatever we can. Because there are issues of mental health out here in Suffolk. So we need to do everything that we can to address those.”