Chief Scott Burnette
Fire Chief, City of Asheville NC
Future of Work - Employee Experience
The City of Asheville is dedicated to providing quality service for the residents and visitors of our beautiful city, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Asheville, NC is a thriving mountain city that has a culture enriched in diversity. The City is dedicated to advancing equity in Asheville, with racial and social equity as top priorities, and to ensuring that we engage with and are accountable to all of our community in creating a thriving city. The City also has a track record of digitally transforming services to empower the community and improve government services for all.
Because of the nature of their work, Public Safety (Police and Fire) officers are exposed to numerous traumatic events and typically have increased incidence of PTSD, suicide, substance abuse, and other mental health challenges as compared to the general public. Public Safety is also reluctant to utilize mental health services because of fear it will impact their job; fear that they will be viewed as unfit for duty; and the bravado that comes with the public safety profession.
Increasing utilization of mental health services means earlier intervention, which leads to better outcomes. To increase utilization, the Fire Department began to use an “embedded” mental health service (mental health counselors present on fire trucks, at stations, etc). This improved utilization, but improvement was still needed.
The City of Asheville has a long track record of being “early adopters” of certain technologies, and being willing to work with startups, particularly startups that align with the City’s equity goals.
When the City was approached by a startup founder with an app that could allow staff to anonymously access mental health services and resources, and to instantly call for help if in distress, City staff quickly put together a test plan and contract with “go/no go” outcomes. After the beta test period, it was clear that the app, called SafePlusMore, in conjunction with the “embedded” mental health care counselors, significantly improved outcomes.
We know that officers are using the app -- without knowing who they are. Public safety is now seeking more behavioral and mental health than ever before. Engaging with embedded behavioral health professionals has been very successful but underutilized. The missing piece was technology–at 2am when someone is in a very deep dark hole, this app has allowed them to press a button and get help immediately. The app allows public safety officers to get help without being seen getting help, which is key to overcoming the profession’s reluctance to utilize mental health services.
Even when someone is suffering from substance abuse and doesn’t want to open up about that or tell their coworkers or clinician or boss, they can still open the app and start reading about addiction, or whatever the issue is. The app also allows the user to build their own support network, in other words, clinicians or family or friends, and then allows the user to instantly indicate to their support group that they are in distress with the touch of a button.
Since utilization and early intervention are key to better mental health outcome, the key metric for this project was utilization. In other words, how often did a firefighter access resources, where resources are access to mental health and substance abuse educational materials, support groups, websites, provider appointments, etc. Before the app, the “embedded” mental health service had improved utilization by 20x. After the app was launched in conjunction with the “embedded” mental health service, utilization improved from the base by 40x.
The initial deployment of the SafePlusMore app used React Native on the client side which interfaced to a Ruby on Rails API, which in turn connected to a Postgres DB on Heroku. The app also used Twilio for push notifications and text messages.
Separating the app from the embedded mental health service was awkward at first, because the one is a multiplier of the other. It became obvious at the end of the Beta period that the startup’s customer was not the city -- it was the provider of the embedded mental health service as a value-add to their ultimate customer. So now, this “software as a service” is bundled into the City’s contract with the embedded health service.
The key disruption here is not necessarily that City of Asheville public safety has benefitted, but that mental health services will potentially be disrupted in a positive way through this technology. The embedded health service is now positioned to offer this service -- app plus mental health services -- to other city Public Safety and increase utilization and early intervention, leading to better outcomes regionally and perhaps nationally.
This disruption is an important part of the future of work for a better Public Safety employee experience.
When one department of a City sees value in a digital technology, it can be a fluke. But after seeing the results that the Fire department had, the Police department is now using the embedded mental health service and app as well. The City is now positioned to have better mental health outcomes for all officers, Police and Fire.
About City of Asheville NC
The City of Asheville delivers quality city services that enhance people’s lives through our IACT values. We are Inclusive: inviting diverse perspectives and life experiences; We are Accountable: taking responsibility for our actions and decisions; We are Collaborative: working together to complete tasks and achieve our goals; We are Trustworthy: honest, sincere, & reliable.