The Madison Community Alternative Response Emergency Services mental health program will expand its hours of operation to include weekends beginning Saturday, the Madison Fire Department announced Wednesday.
CARES dispatches mental healthcare workers and emergency medical services to respond to nonviolent behavioral health emergencies as an alternative to law enforcement. The city initially launched a pilot version of the program in September 2021 that provided service in Madison’s central district but has since expanded to operate citywide.
Teams will be on call 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in addition to the program’s current 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. service hours Monday through Friday.
The added weekend service was made possible by additional funding for CARES in the city’s 2023 budget, according to Madison Fire Department Assistant Chief of Medical Affairs Ché Stedman, who oversees the program.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said in a press statement September 13th the program has shown success in its ability to respond to mental health crises without involving law enforcement.
“Madison CARES has grown slowly but steadily since its inception in 2021, providing high-quality care to our residents in crisis,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I am happy that the program will now better serve patients by expanding into weekend hours.”
The program will be responding from the Town of Madison Fire Station on Fish Hatchery Road during weekend hours, with the addition of Fire Station 3 on Williamson Street during weekdays.
Stedman anticipates further expansion of the program in 2024 to include a third team based on budget allotments and data collected from the current expansion.
“Each time we've expanded, our call volume has increased,” Stedman said. “Even right now, with two teams working during the day, we're only capturing about 55% of the total number of mental health calls that occurred during the time they're in service.”
While the ultimate goal is to reduce the number of mental-health based calls going to the police department, only two teams currently operate during service hours. As a result, many calls are directed back to law enforcement when the CARES line is busy, according to Stedman.
CARES teams have responded to over 3,200 calls for service since its launch, according to Stedman. He said the program’s expansion is needed to keep up with rising demand.
“Pretty much every time we put more resources out there, they get utilized more frequently,” Stedman said.
Mental health response teams as alternatives to law enforcement are seen in programs across the country such as the San Francisco, Denver and Chicago Fire Departments, according to Stedman. He said those programs have influenced the CARES team.
“We routinely talk with our partners around the country about what best practices there are around mobile crisis response. We are trying to make sure that what we’re doing is what is the best service available,” Stedman said.