Asheville firefighters roll out community responder team pilot

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS: Asheville Fire Department Capt. David Sullivan, left, is a liaison with business owners downtown as part of a new community responder pilot within the department. Lt. TJ Fortenberry, right, oversees the four-person team working on the pilot through June. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

There has been a new sight in downtown Asheville since May 1: members of the Asheville Fire Department interacting with the public as part of a community responder pilot program.

Four firefighters compose the team — two primarily reaching out to people who may be unhoused or experiencing a behavioral health issue, and two primarily meeting with downtown business owners to address their needs and concerns. The intent of the community responder team is to have a “proactive approach” to outreach, explains AFD Lt. TJ Fortenberry, who manages the team day to day.

Following a drumbeat of criticism over how the city addresses the unhoused population, substance use, crime and mental health, Asheville announced the pilot April 20 as part of Asheville’s 60-day “downtown safety initiative.” It is part of a yearslong goal of reimagining public safety.

When someone calls 911, dispatch at the Buncombe County Public Safety Communications Center asks if a fire, police or medical response is needed, says county spokesperson Lillian Govus.

Firefighters are trained as emergency medical technicians, so AFD or local fire departments within the county might be dispatched to provide medical help if they are closest to the incident. AFD also responds to any life-threatening emergency, says AFD spokesperson Kelley Klope. Firefighters can stabilize a patient while Buncombe County Emergency Medical Services is on the way, Govus explains.

Therefore, AFD sometimes is the first on the scene when a person is unresponsive on the sidewalk or someone seems to be in a mental health crisis. Klope notes that firefighters “have been responding to these calls for many years. … They constantly respond to suicide, drug issues, behavioral health issues.”

However, there is not a single solution to many of these types of calls. Emergency services providers in Asheville and Buncombe County have frequently told Xpress that such calls involve complex and multilayered issues like behavioral health, hunger, poverty or neglect.

That’s where the community responders come in. “Instead of firefighters responding to those situations that aren’t necessarily an emergency, community responders are trying to reach people where they are, bring them resources, build relationships, know these people and know how to help them,” says Klope.

Boots on the ground

According to the AFD Community Responder dashboard, between April 26, when the pilot was ramping up, and June 12, the team had 398 proactive interactions, meaning they spoke with someone, and responded to 59 events upon request. (Data is updated in real time on the dashboard.) Among those interactions, community responders conducted over 70 wellness checks and addressed several first aid/wound care needs.

The community responders are assigned primarily to downtown. A public “heat map” of the pilot’s outreach shows the majority of interactions have taken place on Haywood Street, North Lexington Avenue, North Pack Square and North Ann Street. However, the responders also venture beyond downtown limits; other locations lit up on the “heat map” include West Asheville around Balm Grove Avenue and Haywood Road, and the Swannanoa River Greenway next to the Walmart Supercenter.

“Big picture, [the data] will be used for efficacy analysis,” explains Emily Ball Asheville community and economic development homeless strategy manager. “Did the pilot work? What did we learn from it? What do we do next?” She says community responders are collecting basic data but “also trying to understand what are they responding to, what’s the situation … and what’s their response. Did they connect someone to a service? Did they provide immediate service themselves — overdose reversal, first aid?”

Ball says it’s also important for community responders to report when they are unable to assist someone or resolve a problem. Data about what is missing from Asheville’s supportive services can be just as instructive for future decision-making as what works, she explains.

‘We’re really not threatening’

While more police downtown is another component of the 60-day downtown safety initiative, the AFD community responders say the philosophy behind their role is to be low-key. They aren’t law enforcement, they’re not in uniform, and they don’t carry guns, handcuffs or Tasers.

“Maybe [people have] been traumatized by something in the past,” explains responder Capt. David Sullivan. “Sometimes that can cause a trigger [when interacting with emergency responders] — versus when we approach wearing what we’re wearing, we’re really not threatening.”

AFD and BCEMS are in the “sweet spot” of addressing the needs of people on the street because they aren’t responsible for enforcing laws, explains Mike DeSerio, outreach program manager for Homeward Bound of Western North Carolina, a nonprofit providing services for the homeless. It also helps that the community responders “dress down” in a casual polo shirt and pants, he says.

The team operates on 12-hour shifts several days a week. (Team members aren’t being dispatched to other AFD calls “on the truck” during the pilot phase, but the team can come to a scene if requested, Klope says.) Firefighters volunteered to be considered for the pilot, and the project manager, Assistant Fire Chief Patrick Crudup, selected four. The team is all male, but Crudup says that if the pilot is expanded, he’d like to see more diversity on the team.

Ball and integrated housing specialist Katherine Ellington helped draft interview questions for the pilot hopefuls. Ball says she was “impressed by the folks that we talked with for the empathy and the natural deescalation ability that they have.”

They ask unhoused people, “Can I help you get somewhere?” and “Are you working with someone on housing?” (A question for business outreach is “What has your experience been?”)

The team received guidance from representatives at Homeward Bound and a therapist who works with the unhoused population. Team members also took a class on critical stress management with Responder Support Services, an organization contracted to provide behavioral health counseling to AFD and APD.

The training addressed the subtle nuances of body language — how close to sit to someone, where to stand in relation to someone on the ground — and how it appears to those who have experienced trauma. “For the most part, everyone [we] encounter has had some type of physical or mental trauma that’s occurred to them,” says Sullivan.

The community responders are “well trained to know what to do, what to say and not to make promises that you can’t keep because a lot of these folks have been promised a lot while they’re on the street, and people haven’t followed through,” Sullivan says. “So, there’s a lack of trust on their part.”

‘A consolidated effort’

AFD’s community responder program covers some of the same ground as the four-person mobile community outreach team, or MCOT, within BCEMS. The two teams are working together in “a consolidated effort,” says BCEMS Director Taylor Jones, noting that both teams have emergency medical technician training.

This collaboration is fostered with a weekly meeting among service providers. The meetings were organized by the BCEMS community paramedics who have a workspace at Haywood Street Congregation. DeSerio from Homeward Bound says he attends weekly with the AFD community responders, BCEMS’ community paramedics and representatives from Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness and Buncombe County Justice Services. The assembled group works to “navigate issues coming up,” DeSerio says.

He says his interactions with community responders have been positive. “I feel like their approach is one of support and aligns with what we’re doing already in outreach,” explains DeSerio. “Essentially, it feels like more hands on deck for what’s already being done, which is really needed.”

Jones concurs. “Anytime that communities can come together and provide more comprehensive services, it serves the community,” he says. “The problem’s a very large problem. And so, the more responders, we can put on the ground to provide services [the better].”

Do you have more to add to this story? Contact the author at jwakeman [at]


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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