'We can do more': Naperville Fire Department adding staff with mental health calls on the rise

The Naperville Fire Department is getting help to deal with the increasing number of 911 calls related to mental health and quality-of-life concerns.

The city council on Tuesday unanimously approved the hiring of six new firefighter/paramedics at an annual cost of $750,000. Because the hirings are anticipated to be made in October, council members also voted to amend the 2023 budget with a $175,000 addition to account for salaries and benefits through the end of the year.

"It's something that we need," Fire Chief Mark Puknaitis said. "In order to do it, we need the staffing."

Puknaitis said the initiative is an expansion of the Community Advocate Response Team that began as a pilot program in 2022. The CART program requires extra staffing to build its capability to 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

Because Naperville is part of the Ground Emergency Medical Transportation and Emergency Triage, Treat and Transport federal programs, Puknaitis said, the costs of the added firefighters/paramedics will be reimbursed to the city.

Puknaitis said the goal is to minimize or eliminate the issues, even if calls take several hours, before they become life-threatening events. No new equipment, vehicles or technology will be necessary in 2024.

"We need to be more proactive," Puknaitis said. "This is a paradigm shift in fire service today. Not just for Naperville, not just this region, but around the country."

According to statistics provided by the city, the number of calls for emergency medical services increased from 9,868 in 2020 to 12,095 in 2022. Calls categorized as mental health or quality of life concerns increased from 3,006 to 3,305 during that same time.

To address the rising number of calls with current staffing, Puknaitis said, $1.1 million a year in overtime would need to be paid.

"You will be seeing more of this happening, especially with departments our size and larger," Puknaitis said of the CART program. "Because there's a need out there. The world has changed. And the situations that we respond to, we have noticed, we can do more."

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