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“Expanding the program is necessary:” Las Cruces Fire Department’s mental health crisis team Project LIGHT sees success in first year

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (KVIA) -- The Las Cruces Fire Department launched a mental health crisis response team last March, and now, officials say they want to expand the program, as the last year has been a success.

During a May 13th City Council work session, Battalion Chief Matthew Hiles outlined the numbers from Project LIGHT over the past year, which is an acronym for "Lessening the Incidences of Grief, Harm, and Trauma."

The department's two Project LIGHT teams consist of a firefighter-paramedic and a social worker, and their goal is to de-escalate mental health crisis situations in the field, as well as to provide resources and transport to mental health facilities if needed.

Since March 1st of 2023, 1,251 calls were made for mental health intervention, resulting in 455 visits by a Project LIGHT team and 416 interventions.

Chief Jason Smith says in the first 6 months of the project, they saw around 20% of these types of calls leading to police transports to emergency rooms or other facilities.

In the last 6 months, that number has dropped to 5 percent, a 75% decrease.

Smith says so far, the public’s reaction to the project has been overwhelmingly positive, and the numbers have nowhere to continue to go but up.

“There’s been a lot of support for the team, they recognize it as a resource and the community reaches out to us directly when they run into issues with a family member or a friend who’s had a crisis in the past," said Smith.

However, 656 calls went unanswered due to the project’s limited amount of resources, and Smith says this is something they want to improve on.

He says the first step is to hire a coordinator for the project who will provide oversight to the social workers, and also fill in any gaps.

"If someone’s out sick for the day, or has annual leave, or one of our light teams is already on a call for service, our coordinator position with a firefighter-medic can respond to that call," says Smith.

"That will hopefully decrease the number of calls we’re not available for, and increase the level of service we provide," he adds.

Expansion plans are slated to go even further than that.

Smith says the original building for Fire Station No. 3 on Valley Drive, which is right next to its replacement building that was built in 2021, is slated to be demolished, and replaced with a dedicated building just for project LIGHT and the Mobile Integrated Healthcare Program.

“They’ll have a place to do al of their work, respond out of, provide patient care, interviews, at a purpose-built building," says Smith.

Both units currently work out of a former conference room at Fire Station No. 1, which can get a little crowded.

Mayor Eric Enriquez also told ABC-7 he wants to see these expansion plans come to fruition.

“These are all the steps we’re taking to make sure this city is safe," said Enriquez.

Chief Smith says funding has already been secured for the expansion, and hopes to start interviewing for the coordinator position in July.

Article Topic Follows: Be Mindful

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Jason McNabb

Reporter/Multimedia Journalist & GMEP Weekends co-anchor


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