Fort Collins first responders using app to foster safer encounters with people

Technology gives first responders valuable information when they are approaching persons with physical or mental health needs.
April 26, 2022
A Fort Collins Police Officer, who serves on the mental health co-responder team, demonstrates how the Vitals app works on his phone. The profile he shows is a "test" profile set up by a coworkers in order for the agency to learn the new tool. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
A Fort Collins Police Officer, who serves on the mental health co-responder team, demonstrates how the Vitals app works on his phone. The profile he’s showing is a “test” profile set up for the purpose of officer training. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Vulnerable community members now have a tool to provide information to first responders during a crisis situation.

The Vitals app allows an individual – or their caregiver – to provide information to police and first responders about their medical or behavioral issues prior to an encounter. The advance communication may help de-escalate volatile situations, enhancing safety for individuals and police officers.

The first in Colorado to use ‘real-time digital medical ID’ app

Fort Collins Police Services is the first agency in Colorado to begin using the tool, starting with its mental health co-response program.

The Vitals app can be downloaded on a smart device by any person or their caregiver. They create a profile within Vitals, voluntarily sharing personal health information, such as physical or behavioral health diagnoses and medications. The app allows individuals to include information about specific de-escalation cues and techniques and behavioral triggers.

When a first responder comes within 80 feet of an individual, a Bluetooth beacon worn by the individual activates, notifying first responders to view the individual’s profile. Profiles are also available to officers when they’re responding to a 911 call from an individual.

Fort Collins Mental Health co-response program

Launched in 2018, the Fort Collins Mental Health co-response program pairs specially trained police officers with UCHealth clinicians. These UCHealth co-responders accompany officers on calls that may require a behavioral health professional, and the co-responder team provides de-escalation and crisis intervention as well as alternative options when the hospital or jail is not appropriate. A co-responder officer and clinician can remain on the scene, freeing other police officers to respond to other in-progress calls for service.

“We are in the service of talking to people in crisis,” said Fort Collins Police Chief Jeff Swoboda. “People with disabilities are often misunderstood, and this app allows them to communicate their special needs.”

“Before this tool, the only way for an officer to have that vital health information is if a co-responder is with them,” said Stephanie Booco, co-responder program supervisor for UCHealth. This is because UCHealth co-responders have access to private health information related to patient care. Police officers do not.

“As an interagency program, we talk to each other, but this gives the patient a voice,” Booco said. Having personalized information helps foster greater awareness, empathy and compassion by responders before the interaction.

“Being able to understand why someone is reacting outside of expectations is huge,” said Ali Thompson, who spoke on behalf of the Autism Society of Colorado on April 14 at a press conference announcing the new technology in Colorado. Thompson began her career as a 911 dispatcher and then spent 20 years as a police officer before retiring. She is now the co-founder and chief development and training officer for Pulse Line Collaborative Training, LLC.

Stephanie Booco, co-responder program supervisor for UCHealth, discusses the need for the Vitals app to community members and reporters at a recent press conference announcing the use of the new technology. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
Stephanie Booco, co-responder program supervisor for UCHealth, discusses the need for the Vitals app to community members and reporters at a recent press conference announcing the use of the new technology. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Providing peace of mind for caregivers

Thompson is also a mother of an autistic son and a non-verbal daughter, both teenagers. She lives in unincorporated Larimer County, and both her children have the Vitals app. Her daughter’s sensory issues prevent her from wearing a medical ID bracelet, so she wears her Vitals beacon on a lanyard.

“It’s peace of mind,” Thompson said about Vitals. “I can let my daughter ride her scooter around. She’s 13 and wants that independence, and now I can give that to her.”

Because of the Vitals app, Thompson knows that if her daughter needed to call 911 for help, dispatch would be aware of her disabilities and share that information with responding officers.

The Vitals app is not geographically based. Wherever the user travels within the United States, their profile will appear to first responders and dispatch centers that are connected to the technology. According to Vitals Aware Services, 85% of the country’s dispatch centers are connected to Vitals Aware Services.

Profiles are not searchable and disappear from an officer’s phone a short time after they leave the 80-foot radius. The app records first responders’ access history to ensure a client’s health information is safe and respected.

Vitals app in Fort Collins

The app was created by Vitals Aware Services in partnership with the Autism Society of Minnesota to create a way for “clear, calm communications between vulnerable people and first responders in a moment of crisis,” according to its website. The effort to bring the program to Fort Collins is a partnership between Fort Collins Police Services and UCHealth, and is supported by grant funding through Larimer County Behavioral Health Services.

The Mental Health Response Team initiated the new technology, but according to the department, Vitals will be used by all FCPS officers within the next couple of months. Swoboda hopes other northern Colorado agencies also will adopt the app.

“We believe this powerful technology will help our officers and co-responders initiate less stressful and more successful interactions in our community,” Swoboda said.

“As we navigate the complex intersection of public safety and mental health, I’m confident that Fort Collins Police Services and our partners will continue to collaborate and innovate to meet the needs of our community. The Vitals program is one of many ways we’re working to ensure safety and service for all,” he said.

Compassionate and understanding interactions with first responders

The announcement comes when police interactions with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as with individuals with mental health or substance-use conditions, have been in the media spotlight around the country.

“We are hopeful that (Vitals) will prove to be a useful tool that has a foundational impact on the nature of the interactions that take place in our community between people with IDD (intellectual and developmental disabilities) and police service professionals,” said David Monroe, executive director of The Arc of Larimer County.

The service has a monthly $2.99 subscription for 911-dispatch services. It costs individuals $5.99 a month if they also want the Bluetooth beacon that allows first responders to see their profile when they are within range. Fort Collins leaders expressed that financial barriers should not be a limiting factor for people who want to use it, and they committed to finding partners to help make the service accessible for those who cannot afford it.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.