New 911 dispatcher training program puts emphasis on mental health

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A first of its kind mental health training program for 911 dispatchers is trying to bring a more holistic approach to de-escalating people in crisis. Allina Health Emergency Medical Services is the first in the state to have all their employees certified.

Experts are calling for all first responders to have this type of training, referred to as the Life Bridges program, and dispatchers say it's truly life-changing.

Rich Gerlach has been on the job answering 911 calls for nearly 30 years. A true professional who tries to help people during some of the worst moments of their lives, he's talked people through almost every situation out there. 

Gerlach said the number of people dealing with mental health issues is staggering.

“I think there are a lot of people that still think mental health is bad, and we need to get rid of that stigma and allow people to reach out when they need help,” he said.

Gerlach is one of nearly 40 Allina EMS dispatchers to undergo a new type of mental health training called Certified Emergency Health Life Bridges. The training gives key insights about callers at risk, promotes strong alliances with that person, boosts cooperation and prevents violence.

“It allows us to ask sometimes some personal questions that we wouldn’t have known before the training,” Gerlach said.

Traditional training for most 911 dispatchers nationwide instructs the telecommunicator to ask basic questions like who, what, when and where – and to inquire about possessing any weapons.

Communications Director of Allina EMS, Jim Soukup, said this training encourages dispatchers to try and form a bond with the person.

"This gives our people - the people who answer the phone - the confidence and the knowledge that they can make a difference and they know what to do and what to say,” Soukup said.

Oftentimes, 911 dispatchers are the first to interact with a person in a crisis while first responders are en route to the scene. Gerlach said this training allows everyone involved to have a positive outcome.

“We inform the caller that the police are part of our team, that they’re coming to help them and not to rush the police officers—wait for the officers to approach them," he said.