Soon, civilians with the Oakland Fire Department may respond to mental health crises instead of police.

The Oakland City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to consider in two weeks an amended ordinance that would create a Civilian Crisis Response Division in the Fire Department.

That division would launch and administer the city’s Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland program, also known as MACRO, a civilian response to mental health and other nonviolent, low-level crises.

“We need it now,” Councilmember Treva Reid said of MACRO. “East Oakland wanted it launched yesterday.”

Councilmembers recently considered having a nonprofit such as La Familia Counseling Service or Bay Area Community Services administer MACRO. But several reasons emerged Tuesday that make it appear the Fire Department is best suited to manage the program.

MACRO calls will need to be dispatched through a 911 system and the department has a 911 dispatch system. Also, Oakland firefighters have the respect of residents and fire stations are located throughout the city.

“We have to value their experience,” Councilmember Noel Gallo said of Oakland firefighters.

The first reading of the proposed ordinance will be at the March 16 City Council meeting.

Implementation within six months

About $1.8 million has already been set aside in the budget to pay for MACRO, Vice Mayor and Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said.

Councilmembers want to implement MACRO in six months or sooner, but there are some hurdles to jump. People must be hired, for one.

The amended ordinance would allow for the hiring of temporary staff to get the program running sooner, with the possibility of hiring those same people full-time.

Gallo stressed the urgency of launching MACRO.

“We have a public safety emergency,” he said.

Just this weekend, Gallo said he came across a man lying naked in an intersection making a lot of noise. The fire department responded and helped the man.

“We have a fire department that does this for a living,” Gallo said.

MACRO may launch in East Oakland and then expand to West Oakland or possibly launch in both of those areas.

Gallo suggested getting fire officials involved in the discussion to get their opinions.

A similar program run by the Anti Police-Terror Project already exists in Oakland. Called MH First, it is a non-police response for people experiencing mental health crises.

Cat Brooks, co-founder of the project, said MH First will keep operating even if MACRO launches.

“It is critical the two programs are in communication with each other,” she said.

MH First currently operates only a crisis hotline because of the pandemic. But as their volunteers get vaccinated, MH First will be back on the streets. The project serves all of Oakland.

The hotline is available Fridays and Saturdays from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. at 510-999-9MH1. People can call or text that number.

Oakland fire officials declined to comment on the proposed MACRO program.