homeless tent on side of road

Fire Departments Use Compassion in Response to Unhoused Population

Growing Unhoused Populations Produces Challenges for First Responders

Homelessness in America has increased in recent years, and Colorado fire departments must adapt. Recently, fire chiefs from Ohio, California, and Washington joined Lexipol to discuss the issue.

Lexipol is a leading policy guidance company that specializes in police and fire departments. As part of a partnership with the CSD Pool, they provide a discounted rate to Pool members. Since this is a sensitive issue, it presents unique challenges.

It’s important to devise response procedures and training for handling interactions with the unhoused. But seasoned chiefs also agree that beneath all of these approaches lies one key factor: empathy.

Who Are They? 

The unhoused population is diverse; nationally, it’s comprised of individuals, families, veterans, youth, domestic violence survivors, people with serious medical and mental health conditions, and more. And it continues to grow.

homeless man holding cardboard sign

In 2018, the estimated number of unhoused individuals in America exceeded 550,000. In Colorado in particular, there are an average of 10,857 unhoused people on a given night, and an average of 19 people per 10,000 do not have adequate housing. Some areas have much higher rates than the state’s average.

It’s difficult to make sweeping statements about such a varied population, but there are some notable statistics.

In particular, while the majority of homelessness is caused by insufficient income and a lack of affordable housing, between 25% and 40% of unhoused individuals struggle with drug or alcohol addiction, while 40% suffer from some degree of mental illness. Knowing this allows fire departments to tailor training and resources to specific, widespread issues.

Determining the Risks 

Lexipol’s experts were quick to identify risks specific to the unhoused population, and encampments are the source of many of them. Nationally, encampments saw a 1,000% increase between 2007 and 2017, while two-thirds of existing encampments were reported to have been in existence for more than a year, making this a long-term issue.

Although firefighters respond to many types of emergencies in encampments, the threat of actual fires is high. In 2018, a woman suffered third-degree burns in an encampment fire in Pueblo.

In 2017, the number of fires in Colorado Springs encampments jumped from 186 to 275.  The incident rate was so high that in 2018 the city began considering a ban to effectively eradicate encampments, eventually putting that plan on hold as it would be illegal to enforce the ban if the city could not provide adequate shelter for displaced inhabitants.

street with tents on sidewalk from homelessOther risks associated with encampments include medical emergencies resulting from exposure, overdosing, mental health crisis, and violent conflicts. However, unhoused individuals are not the only people at risk.

Firefighters and other first responders also face exposure to disease, needle sticks, and injuries, in addition to the compassion fatigue that results from working with such a vulnerable population. This underscores the need for adequate planning, preparation, and resources for districts.

Planning a Response 

There are several ways to improve your fire department’s interactions with the unhoused population. Training is particularly important. Some developmental courses to consider include crisis intervention, situational awareness, motivational interviewing, de-escalation, and conflict communication. In its own way, each of these courses enhances the essential combination of awareness and empathy.

Every community and every encampment has different needs, but in addition to training, procedural changes and modifications to your assigned staff and apparatus can be useful.

For instance, some fire departments have modified procedure so that each time a call is received near a homeless shelter or encampment, at least five people are dispatched. The increase in staff presence allows for more manageable incident response.

Some departments also rely on staging, placing apparatus and crew prior to entering an encampment. Likewise, various departments require that staff responding to encampments establish a second means of egress and carry radios at all times to ensure safe operation.

There are also long-term adjustments that can be helpful. One department cited by Lexipol’s experts has staged a Community Care Response Unit (CCRU). The CCRU is essentially a mobile health trailer. Since its creation, the CCRU has reduced the number of 911 calls from the nearby camps. It has improved conditions for the unhoused by distributing vetted donations and personal care items.

firefighters next to fire truck in parking lotSome departments stage Behavioral Health Response Units (BHRU). These units are staffed with a paramedic and a licensed mental health counselor and offers a streamlined hospitalization process for people in a mental health emergency. This is made possible by the presence of the licensed mental health professional.

Like these others, Basic Life Support units can provide an alternative response option for camps. This option decreases repairs, increases response reliability, and provides training opportunities.

In addition to the above suggestions, community partnerships may bring added benefits. Consider collaborations with private companies or non-profits and support funding for open shelters and affordable housing. A community approach doesn’t just provide a larger pool of resources; it also sends a message of support to those who most need it.

Cultivating Empathy

Support is essential. Working with the unhoused population can be difficult, and the potential for resentment or burnout is high. It’s important not only to provide staff with the tools to cope, but also to encourage a culture of empathy.

There are many people who are just one paycheck or one crisis away from losing their homes, and the reality is that it can happen to anyone. Getting to know the unhoused in your community can help eliminate the stigma of being unhoused.

How We Can Help

Our goal is to equip you to serve your community to the best of your ability. We provide a training platform, TargetSolutions, with courses on situational awareness and interpersonal relations. This service is free to all Pool members, regardless of district type. There is also special training, at a subsidized cost, for firefighters and EMTs.

In addition, Lexipol has resources for fire departments looking for guidance on responding to unhoused people. This includes a webinar, presentation slides, and external reference material.

We’d love to hear how your district interacts with the unhoused population. For more information, or to leave a comment or suggestion, contact us at info@csdpool.org.