Three new Round Rock Fire Department employees stepped foot into the City of Round Rock’s New Employee Orientation one morning this spring, expecting to join a new 13-person team to address behavioral health issues in the community.
The date was Monday, March 21.
A Human Resources representative told the attendees that weather conditions were expected to worsen that afternoon, and gave instructions for locating protection in case of a tornado. Little did they know, an EF-2 tornado would touch down that evening around 6 p.m., causing an estimated $32 million in damages to 680 structures in Round Rock.
The new employees joined two other existing members of the new Crisis Response Unit, which is part of the Community Risk Reduction Division led by Capt. Darwin Shell, and hit the ground running at 8 a.m. the next morning to check in on impacted residents and connect them with resources. Following the storm, the crew made face-to-face contact with 840 individuals.
“They came on at the perfect time,” said Fire Chief Shane Glaiser. “The five members on the team at that time really helped with reaching out to the affected neighborhoods, to let them know that we had not forgotten them and were there to serve them.”
After the tornado response, the Crisis Response Unit returned to its primary role of responding to behavioral health calls. The program was approved by City Council during the budget process in fall 2021, and began operations in April 2022. Since then, the team has grown to eight members total, and the Department continues to recruit specialized individuals for the remaining openings. The team will eventually include six behavioral health specialists, four paramedics and two case managers, along with a program manager.
The role of program manager has been filled by Annie Burwell, who has more than 30 years of experience working in the behavioral health field. She previously led the Williamson County Mobile Outreach Team and has also worked in psychiatric acute care with children, experiential therapy with adolescents, school-based mental health services and crisis intervention and management.
“What I love about Round Rock’s approach is how everything is so interrelated,” Burwell said. “We have this whole spectrum of services, from Fire and EMS, including Community Risk Reduction and our local law enforcement and behavioral health services.”
Behavioral health units like the Crisis Response Unit are often referred to as the “fourth service,” as the team works with local law enforcement, the fire department and emergency medical services to provide public safety services in the community. The Crisis Response Unit responds to calls coming into the City’s dispatch center if they involve a behavioral health crisis, which includes mental health emergencies and overdoses or other substance use issues. If the crisis begins as an emergency, other public safety branches, such as firefighters or police officers, may be dispatched first, followed by a request for follow up by the Crisis Response Unit. This allows emergency services to be released back into service to respond to higher priority calls.
“Our job is to help people figure out how to resolve their crisis with the least amount of emergency resources needed, and to help them access care and resources,” Burwell said.
Since April, the Crisis Response Unit has had 362 patient encounters and relieved police and fire personnel when individuals required behavioral health services due to substance use or mental health issues. Members of the unit continue to follow up with several of these patients to ensure they are equipped with the resources they need to be successful long-term.
“Round Rock really wants to help their neighbors and that’s really a driving force for me,” Burwell said. “If you look at so many of our programs, like the Tool Lending Center, the focus is how do we help our neighbors get better and do better so that the whole city is successful.”
To learn more about the Crisis Response Unit, visit roundrocktexas.gov/cru.