Joliet fire officials tackling public safety issues, including mental health care

Community Care Program connects people facing ‘complex challenges’ to resources

Joliet Fire Chief Jeff Carey speaks at the Public Safety Open Forum at the Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park Theatre on Wednesday June 26, 2024 in Joliet.

The Joliet Fire Department has been working on empowering the community to help fellow residents with medical care and to address the root causes of mental health crises across the city.

At the public safety forum last week, Joliet fire Chief Jeff Carey said the mission of his department is not only to respond to medical and fire calls, but also to engage in strong outreach and educational programs.

“If we can educate the community and mitigate issues before and prevent them, then hopefully we can reduce the amount of times we need to respond,” Carey said.

Emergency care

Although the number of structure fires have decreased in Joliet, the fire department responded to a record number of calls last year, Carey said. The majority of those calls were for emergency medical services, he said.

Last year, Joliet ambulances responded to more than 19,000 calls for emergency care, Carey said.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S., Carey said. The Joliet Fire Department responded to more than 300 cardiac arrests in the city, as well as 1,500 incidents involving other cardiac issues, he said.

The fire department has changed the way it performs CPR by using a new method called advanced cardiac resuscitation, Carey said.

Before that change, emergency responders would get a return of pulses in about 22% of people who had cardiac arrests in Joliet, he said.

“After we changed these methods, which basically involved doing better CPR, we now receive pulses back in over 50% of our cardiac arrests,” Carey said.

Carey said the fire department has addressed the treatment of cardiac issues further by offering free classes on bleed control, CPR and automated external defibrillators.

While we still have a long way to go, these results do testify to the collaborative effort between our community, our community partners and the city of Joliet.”

—  Jeff Carey, Joliet fire chief

Last year, the fire department trained more than 5,000 residents in AED use and CPR, including students at Joliet Township High School District 204 and the middle schools, Carey said.

“It’s very important we can train as many of our citizens in CPR and get as many AEDs out in the community as possible,” Carey said.

Joliet Fire Department Mental Health Coordinator John Lukancic leads a Crisis First Aid refresher course for the Joliet Fire Department Station One crew on Wednesday, July 12th, 2023 in Joliet.

Community risks

In 2020, the fire department sought to become more than just a “response organization” by engaging in a community risk reduction program, Carey said.

“The vision of our community risk reduction program is to work with families and individuals who are facing complex challenges and often need resources from more than one source,” Carey said.

The goal of the program is to make residents safe and healthy and provide opportunities to thrive, Carey said. An annual assessment of community risks showed there were significant calls for mental and behavioral health issues, he said.

Carey said the barriers for mental health treatment in the city have included access to those treatments, their costs and transportation.

Carey said the fire department staff has trained in crisis first aid to help with bystanders who’ve experienced tragic incidents or witnessed those incidents. Crisis first aid also has been helpful with the department’s own staff, Carey said.

“The key to this step in the program is in 24 to 48 hours, somebody from our community risk reduction [program] will call you back and see that you’re doing OK. Most of the time, that’s all people need – it’s just to know somebody was there for them, and they can call us back if they need us,” Carey said.

In 2023, the number of behavioral and mental health calls in the city dropped by 3%, and there also was a 31% drop in the suicide rate, Carey said.

“While we still have a long way to go, these results do testify to the collaborative effort between our community, our community partners and the city of Joliet,” Carey said.

He said the fire department is able to use its staff to identify precursors to residents suffering from mental health issues such as a lack of basic needs.

“If they can’t eat, they just lost their job, their car is not working, [they] can’t get work, sometimes that is the problem. So by identifying those needs, it helps us solve a lot of other issues that are going on,” Carey said.

A Joliet Fire Department Ambulance pulls up to St. Joseph Hospital in Joliet.

Community Care Program

The Joliet Fire Department also has been engaged in a Community Care Program that connects people and families facing “complex challenges” in the city with resources from multiple community agencies.

The goal of the program is to identify people and families who are in need of community resources, identify what barriers are stopping them from receiving those resources, and then offering them support, Carey said.

“The average client we see through the Community Care Program needs four community resources to solve their issues. So you can see how they can get lost in the process, and we’re there to help guide them through it,” Carey said.

Community paramedicine

The Joliet Fire Department also is working on a community paramedicine program, Carey said.

Under community paramedicine, emergency medical personnel provide services to fill the gaps in primary care delivery, provide nonurgent home visits for patients with chronic illnesses and conduct general risk assessments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Carey said there’s a growing number of retiring baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) and not enough millennials and Generation X to take care of them.

Carey said a shortage of health care workers will make “underserved communities more underserved,” and community paramedicine may be the answer to providing treatment while reducing hospital visits.

“One of the most successful community paramedic programs in the country is from Dallas-Fort Worth [in Texas],” Carey said. “In five years, they saved their community over $800 million in Medicaid charges.”