LARGO, Fla. -- Hundreds of non-emergency calls are taking resources away from people in true emergencies, but now the city of Largo has a new plan to unclog 911 phone lines.
Hundreds of times a year, Largo firefighters dash out to the Pinellas County Jail and Safe Harbor, a jail diversion program.
“Three times a day our engines are going to Safe Harbor or the jail," Largo Mayor Woody Brown explained.
Just last year, the top 15 “9-1-1 abusers” in Largo dialed 9-1-1 or the police department more than 700 times. The city says one of the biggest issues they're trying to tackle is people calling 9-1-1 when they need mental help, but it isn't a dire situation.
“Of course they’re going to call 911. They don’t know who else to call. What we want is for them to say I now have somebody else to call. I know the resources now available,” explained April Lott with Directions for Living.
The mental health center is partnering with Largo to establish a new program where full-time mental health advocates will work alongside police officers. Responding to calls together, they hope to tackle 9-1-1 abuse and connect people with mental health resources.
A similar program has helped to drastically reduce unnecessary calls coming into the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Clearwater Police Department.
“By showing up to people’s homes and introducing ourselves and our services, it has helped dramatically!" Lott explained.
It's welcoming news for Tanya Cotton, who still remembers the moment she almost lost her daughter and had to frantically dial 9-1-1. On the phone with a 9-1-1 operator, she tried to stay calm as her daughter struggled to breathe.
“You’re just sitting there. It could be just two minutes but it feels like hours. They arrived quick and saved her, but it did feel like an eternity," Cotton explained. “When it’s your child or loved one needing help you want them there as soon as they can get there.”
In 2017, the Largo Police Department responded to 2,314 calls for service involving individuals with mental health concerns (656 of these calls involved baker acts).
Directions for Living helped the city come up with the new behavioral health navigator program, in the hopes it will mean more people with mental health concerns are connected with the resources they need and given more options beyond jail or the hospital when they reach out to emergency workers.