Anchorage Fire Department Mobile Crisis Team responds to the call of a woman in medical crisis on August 5, 2022 in Muldoon. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

The mobile crisis team in Anchorage received a call from a dispatched office.

“It actually sounds like a panic attack right next to us,” Jennifer Pearce said on a recent Friday, about four hours into a 10-hour shift.

Pierce is a licensed clinician and part of a team of two tasked with dealing with a mental health crisis in Anchorage. Over the last year, the Mobile Crisis Team (MCT) has been responding to mental health crises on the streets. A few months ago, we received funding from the city to operate 24/7.


The team’s gray SUV pulled up in the parking lot of Ronnie 2, a sushi restaurant on the east side. Nearby, Pierce and her partner, paramedic Michael Riley, spotted a woman in the car. She told Riley that she had a history of anxiety-induced panic attacks, but she was much worse this time.

“She actually said the anxiety was different this time,” Riley said.

An ambulance was also at the scene. The woman was taken to hospital.

It’s the Mobile Crisis Team’s mission to respond to calls like this where someone’s mental health is being threatened. The idea is that it’s a better way to deal with urban mental health emergencies. Teams of first responders are just taking the pressure off police and firefighters who may have responded in the past. not. But you can also connect people to the most appropriate resources. So far, according to Riley, things are going well.

“Of the more than 1,000 911 calls we responded to—those that went through the 911 system—800 remained in the community,” Riley said. “That’s his 800 calls that didn’t go to the emergency room, ED, or jail.”

That data does not include all responses to calls to 311 non-emergency lines.

Paramedic Michael Riley checks to see if a woman in crisis needs medical attention. Medical personnel are also sometimes seen when Riley and Pierce receive these calls regarding medical emergencies. (Mizell Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Dispatchers who answer 311 and 9-1-1 calls are trained in emergency medical services and basic anatomy and decide which calls to send to the mobile crisis team.

“We evaluate all different aspects of the patient to determine where to land,” said Don Tolman, chief dispatcher for the Anchorage Fire Department. “And essentially, people who end up in MCT territory don’t need an ambulance, they probably don’t need to go to the hospital, but because they’ve triaged their phones to determine that they have someone to talk to. Some kind of crisis in need.”

Michael Riley answers a call regarding a woman in a mental crisis. (Mizell Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Having both paramedics and clinicians on the team is important, says Riley.

Paramedics like him take the lead in situations that require urgent medical attention.

“Having a medic on the team allows us to make the initial contact, evaluate, and say yes or no. This is primarily medical, and in this case we were able to hand it over to the medic rig.” Riley says.

In cases dealing with mental health crises, clinicians like Pierce take the lead.

Shortly after Riley and Pierce left the sushi bar that Friday, they received another call. A man named Michael Joseph said a young man with a history of psychiatric problems he knew for years was in danger at Centennial Campground.

“Naked, in the woods, incoherent, mentally confused,” Joseph told them. “Just put on your boots and that’s it.”

It was the first time the team had called the campground since it turned into a makeshift homeless camp last month after Mayor Dave Bronson closed the shelter at Sullivan Arena.

Michael Riley speaks to Michael Joseph, the man who called for help for his friend at Centennial Campground. (Mizell Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

By the time the team arrived, the young man was dressed and sitting on a bench. Pierce sat down and talked to him.

“He was happy to talk to me,” Pierce said. “We had a good conversation. I’m happy to pass on his needs.”

Pierce said these conversations could mean helping people get medication, working on breathing exercises to reduce stress, or simply discussing what led to their breakdown. On average, she said, she spends about 30 minutes with a person during a response.

“I was with someone for three hours, or five minutes,” she said. “It said. So it really depends. ”

After Pierce talks to the Centennial man, City Park officials intervene and bring him to their headquarters to refer them to resources. Pierce said the Mobile Crisis Team will check on him the next day.

“Just check in and make sure he has all the resources he needs to stay here and stay safe,” Pearce said.

Joseph, who called emergency services for his friend, watched the reaction unfold. He said he hadn’t heard of his team at Mobile Crisis until today and is happy they’ve arrived.

“They were very caring, very kind, and very professional,” he said. “I want to help and get all the information. Anything they can do to help this young man without me having to say his name. That’s great, and we may be able to get the help this young man so desperately needs right now.”

Clinicians Jennifer Pearce and Michael Riley talk to a man in Mountain View. (Mizell Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Reilly said mobile crisis team members are not police officers, so they may be easier to answer mental health calls.

“You know, we absolutely love our blue brothers,” Riley said. ’ That’s not the angle we are coming from. We are licensed clinicians and paramedics. We are here to help with what is happening. ”

The team answered a total of eight calls that day. Most were in East Anchorage, but Pierce said he’d driven around town in the past.

“We were deep in South Anchorage, we got calls in Eagle River, we got calls in West Anchorage, we got calls in Eagle River,” Pierce said, laughing. “So I put a lot of miles on the car that day.”

Licensed clinician Jennifer Pearce (left) and paramedic Michael Riley (right) with the Anchorage Fire Department Mobile Crisis Team document and follow up on the previous day’s crisis report. (Mizell Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Currently, the Mobile Crisis team works 10 hours a day (10am to 8pm), 7 days a week. In April, the Anchorage Council funded the team to serve him 24/7. The funding was finalized in May after Mayor Bronson vetoed the funding, and Congress nullified him.

Pierce said he is looking forward to expanding the team. There were times when they were so stigmatized that more traditional responders, like the police, had to answer the phone. I was.

“We can help people who are having suicidal thoughts in the middle of the night, who are having anxiety attacks, who don’t know where to turn and what to do,” she said. But they support me.”

Pierce and Riley say it will likely take a while before the team is fully staffed, but the funding will be used for a second mobile phone to handle high call volume hours. It says it can also be used to finance Crisis Team vehicles. For now, if you need mental health support, you can call 911 or 311 and request a mobile crisis team.

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