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Pierce County Executive Wants Vans Filled With Mental Health 'First Responders'

"Joe rises" by Jason Taellious is licensed under CC by 2.0
St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma

Bruce Dammeier ascended to the Pierce County Executive's Office just months after a report found the county lacked a well-connected and accessible mental health care system. 

Dammeier’s plan for improving the system starts with a pair of vans.

He wants the county to operate two specially-equipped vehicles carrying trained staff who would rush to help people in a mental health crisis. 

"Think of them like behavioral health first responders," Dammeier said in his first "State of the County" address in March.

Right now, people experiencing mental health crises often end up in Pierce County's emergency rooms or jails.

Dammeier said the vans are an experiment in directing them to more effective care.

“Our goal is to operate them for six months and collect very good data, and at the end say, ‘Okay, how’d it turn out?" he said in an interview.

He said the local government can't meet all of the county's mental health needs, but it can fill in some of the cracks.

Dammeier, who took office in January, wants the county to invest $4.7 million in a behavioral health fund that would pay for the vans, a 16-bed "short-stay diversion center," and a $500,000 contribution toward a planned behavioral health hospital to be operated by the MultiCare Health System and CHI Franciscan Health.

The County Council is considering the proposals. Dammeier said the investments would tap existing funds and would not raise taxes.

His proposals come shortly after the County Council voted down a proposed sales tax that would have funded mental-health services in Pierce County.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.