Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory EMS coordinator Chris Fancil speaks to the WWFT board about the community mental health wellness program Tuesday. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.

Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory EMS coordinator Chris Fancil speaks to the WWFT board about the community mental health wellness program Tuesday. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.

The details are still in the planning stages, but a community mental health wellness program is beginning this fall with the Warsaw-Wayne Fire Territory.

The Fire Territory’s board heard more about it Tuesday as board members reviewed and approved a recommendation to the Warsaw Common Council on the 2021 budget. The budget includes up to three additional firefighters to help move the program forward. The idea for the program was first presented to the board at its January meeting.

Even with the three additional employees included, the fire territory operating fund for 2021 will still see a decrease of 3.49% to $4,647,005, in part because the firefighters pension is moving from there to the pension fund. The fire territory equipment replacement fund is budgeted at $1,142,742 for 2021, a 0.01% decrease from 2020; while the fire pension fund is proposed at $713,183, with $447,850 of that coming from the operating fund.

Mayor Joe Thallemer asked Fire Chief Mike Wilson to talk more about the need to add three firefighters in 2021.

“We’re looking at doing a community mental health wellness program to help those in our community,” Wilson said. “We’re probably going to be bringing in an instructor to do what we call (critical incident debriefing) trainings, which is where we handle individuals that are going through a crisis.”

He said the program is something Thallemer has observed in another community (Fishers) in the state and Warsaw is modeling its program after that community.

“Those individuals will work directly with (EMS coordinator) Chris (Fancil) on this program,” Wilson said.

He said there is a great need to have someone involved in the mental health wellness program available around the clock. “We’ve got to have someone who is trained to be able to do that,” Wilson said.

He said they will begin the program this fall, with he and Fancil handling it at that time. “But as that program grows – and as the mayor is going to find out the numbers are high, the need is really there – we chose to be cost-effective by not only using that individual to be the front-seat engine officer, but also select those individuals that have the desire, the knowledge, the care and the compassion to be able to work the program we’re going to bring to our community,” Wilson said.

Thallemer said the need to address the mental health concerns in the community is a long-standing, growing concern.

“We’ve seen through COVID the uptick in mental health calls, domestic, suicide attempts. In all communities, this is a problem that we need to come up with a solution to, to assist law enforcement when they’re put on a call like that, that essentially doesn’t involve law breaking but involves the mental health of those being a risk to themselves. There needs to be an opportunity to assist that individual and to assist our community when there are emerging acute mental health issues and crises. Communities across the state are looking at ways to handle these issues, to assist police, to assist the community, to assist these individuals and their families,” Thallemer said, noting the city of Warsaw is looking at several different methods.

First, he said they need to sit back and look at what the needs of the community are. They’ve got data that suggests there is an unmet need here, but he said they need to dig into that deeper.

“The other big critical part of this – and we’re not going to move forward until we’ve identified community partners that can assist us with these acute mental health situations. Right now, we have to send those individuals for in-patient care over to Fort Wayne, and, at this point, that’s not what this is about. We’ve got to try and find ways within our community to take care of those acute problems and those acute situations that can be assisted and headed by this group of community awareness EMTs,” Thallemer continued.

The program is in the process of being developed and the money put into the WWFT budget is a “place holder,” he said.

“We will not move ahead until we’ve got full community support and resources to do this properly,” Thallemer said. “But I’ve asked Chief and the fire territory to put together a program with the community, and again something we can begin implementing in 2021 if we’ve got all the pieces and are ready to go.”

They’ve been down to Fishers to look at that city’s program which has been in place for several years. Fishers has a community hospital that will handle acute mental health crisis events and has that resource.

“We don’t have that resource and we need to develop that resource in this community. So, again, we are working with all of our partners,” Thallemer said. “This is a wide-ranging problem and a situation that’s well beyond the need to just not do anything about it. We need to step up and handle the concerns of the mental wellness of our community.”

WWFT board member Brandon Schmitt later said he’d like more information about the Fishers program because he was concerned that firefighters were being asked to do even more than they already do.

Thallemer said the “nuts and bolts” of the program would vary from community to community. “The idea is to create an intervention during that acute crisis and for these individuals that are working through that, for the fire territory to be able to act as almost a case manager for these individuals, to help them and make sure they get proper care. So many times these folks are lost in the cracks and just continue to be lost after that acute call is made,” he said.

Suicide prevention at the school level “is a big part of this,” Thallemer said, repeating that each program is tailored to its community and the resources available within the community. It will take time to get the program off the ground, and it needs community support and buy-in. “Most importantly, I think this is the step the city needs to take,” he said.

Wilson said in a short time, from some of the conversations that have already been had on the program, “There’s already been things that Chris has been able to do or even as guys on the street have been able to make comments to: Building a ramp for an individual that we used to have to go help pick up and put back in a wheelchair; finding agencies to be able to help people that are overstocked inside their homes and you can’t get a cot into for medical calls; repeat medical calls.”

Agencies have already contacted Fancil and the mayor’s office asking what they can do to help, Wilson said.

Fancil said, “When we first put this together, I approached the chief about just like a resource management-type program for those people that can’t afford their medications or need that ramp built or whatever. And the mayor came back to us with this program that he saw Fishers do on mental health.”

The Fishers program brings people to resources that are already there, he said.

The fire department can be great at this, Fancil said, because it’s not looking at any financial aspect of it but just looking to help people. He said they’re going to listen to people about what they say they need, and then point them in the direction that will help that need.

“The biggest thing we’re seeing with all these people is that they know someone is there to listen and help them with whatever that need is,” Fancil said, noting they’re not going to become mental health professionals. “But we are saying that we will have a resource list or compile a group of resources and get people to the help that they need. We are blessed in this community with a lot of people that want to help.”

Later in the discussion, Thallemer said, “If it’s not there, if you don’t have communities taking the lead, in Indiana it’s not getting done. And the programs we’ve seen are new programs. We have to look at those programs as communitywide programs that are headed up and lead by municipalities and local units … to create a point where these individuals can get help and get help effectively and not just be passed through a hospital emergency room.”