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How a community came together to protect its most vulnerable citizens

Law enforcement, EMS and civic leaders joined forces to get a valuable communication app in the right hands


Sponsored by Vitals Aware Services

By Laura Neitzel for EMS1 BrandFocus

Law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMS providers have their hearts in the right place when it comes to serving and protecting citizens. But heart isn’t enough – they still need financial resources that are usually in short supply. In Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, law enforcement and EMS teamed up with civic leaders and community foundations to make sure the financial resources were in place to help protect the community’s most vulnerable residents.

The Vitals app helps first responders protect and serve a community's most vulnerable citizens.
The Vitals app helps first responders protect and serve a community's most vulnerable citizens. (image/Getty)

Finding the silver lining in a bad situation

For various reasons, including strong community support, Kandiyohi County has a higher than average concentration of people with special needs, says Sara Carlson, executive director of the Willmar Area Community Foundation.

“Families often relocate here to get the services for their kids educationally and medically, and then they age in place here,” she said.

One of those vulnerable people is the adult son of Paula Bredberg, a former board member of WACF. Because of his diminished capacity and anxiety, what should have been a simple traffic stop turned into a tense situation. When recounting the story in a conversation with Carlson, Bredberg wondered aloud what could have been done to make that type of situation go better.

A few weeks later, Bredberg found the answer to her question.

An app that speaks for those who can’t speak for themselves

People with developmental, behavioral and intellectual conditions and disabilities may have difficulties communicating, acting “appropriately” or following orders ─ which can lead to misunderstandings in dealings with law enforcement or other first responders, as happened with Bredberg’s son.

The Vitals App improves interactions between first responders and people with visible and invisible conditions and disabilities by voluntarily communicating critical information in real time to law enforcement and first responders. When in close proximity to a Bluetooth beacon worn by the vulnerable person, the first responder receives an alert and can access a profile uploaded by a caregiver, family member or guardian that includes the person’s identity, condition, emergency contact and even effective de-escalation techniques for that individual.

With the solution found, the next challenge was to get it into the hands of first responders and out into the community. Bredberg turned to two people who could get it done.

It takes a village

“With almost everything that we do here at the Community Foundation, we think with that border-to border-lens. How can we float the most boats and make things better for the most people?” said Carlson. “If we’re going to get in on something like this, we don’t want it to be just a small-sector exposure.”

Bredberg approached Carlson and James Miller, executive director of the United Way of West Central Minnesota.

“Our two organizations are trying to do a lot of collaboration within the community, trying to do different things and bring others to the table,” said Miller. “It was an easy sell for us. We really liked the idea and knowing our population of individuals with disabilities we said, ‘Let’s get on board with this.’”

The next step was to convene a meeting with community first responders to find out if the Vitals App was something they could use. What value would it have to their day-to-day work?

Carlson and Miller brought in key stakeholders to explore how to not only get the app in the hands of first responders, families and caregivers, but also how to make it relevant to the widest segment of the community at large. Among those stakeholders were representatives from the Willmar Police Department, the Kandiyohi Sheriff’s Office and Willmar Ambulance Service.

Not just for law enforcement

Although the Vitals App was originally designed for law enforcement, Brad Hanson, director of emergency medical services for Willmar Ambulance Service, recognized that it would be useful for EMS as well.

“I thought to myself, the reason the Vitals App is set up is to alert responders of these individuals that have this need. And that morphed my mind into thinking, you know, there’s elderly individuals out there that have that same need to communicate in a way that isn’t typical,” said Hanson. “So for us going to an individual that might be elderly and has fallen and is now unconscious, we don’t always have the information we need to take care of them medically. The Vitals App is completely set up to be able to provide that information to us.”

More ideas flew around the room. The Vitals App could help people with dementia. Epilepsy. Diabetes. Traumatic brain injuries. Parkinson’s disease. Stroke. Hearing impairment. As the list grew, so did the excitement for other possibilities.

“It really comes down to a caregiver who is able to update the application, put in correct information, even the current list of medications,” said Hanson. “Our staff can get that information readily, easily through the app and then copy it over to our reporting system.”

The parties agreed that the Vitals App needed to get out to the community as soon as possible, but there were hurdles. EMS didn’t have smartphones, so they’d have to figure out how to make the app work with devices in the rigs.

“Vitals was a fantastic partner in conceptually helping us figure out what would be possible and what wouldn’t,” said Carlson.

“The technology is so simple and intuitive that we can easily work with agencies to make sure it fits their infrastructure,” said Chief Janeé Harteau, president of Vitals Aware Services. “The majority of our users are usually pretty impressed with just how easy it is to use and how quickly they can receive such valuable information. We were delighted that we could make it work for EMS.”

“We just needed to figure out how we were going to pay for it because none of them had it in the budget, said Carlson. “So then we wondered, ‘Is this a role that philanthropy can play?’"

Getting over the funding hurdle

Together Carlson and Miller allocated funding from their own coffers and obtained additional funding from individual donors and other sources, including confiscated vehicle sales funds from the Kandiyohi County Attorney’s Office. All onboarding startup expenses, device expenses and the first full year of monitoring were covered by charitable donations.

“After that, the agencies committed to putting the regular fees into their budgets and taking it from there,” said Carlson. “So we really just needed to get it up and running, get the devices into everybody’s hands, and then we could walk away and just leave it in the hands of our local emergency responder experts who were managing it.”

Information is a powerful weapon

Hidden disabilities are just ripe for something to go deeply wrong, says Carlson.

“Everyone rolls into those kinds of situations with their best intentions. There is no one who rolls up to those situations intending for something to go wrong, but it does,” she said, “and information is a powerful weapon in trying to help ensure that the outcomes are better for everybody.”

"The process of bringing Vitals to Kandiyohi County started with one conversation,” said Harteau. “Next thing you know, the community came together with a common goal, coming up with a simple solution to fund the program and ensure compassionate coverage that encompasses all three disciplines of first responders."

The Vitals App launched in Kandiyohi County in October 2018. Kandiyohi Sheriff’s Office deputies, Willmar police officers and Willmar emergency medical technicians all carry the Vitals App. Special needs individuals in schools, group homes and families across Kandiyohi County have a resource that can help give them peace of mind that their loved ones will be in good hands when they encounter those first responders with the big hearts – and now, the right tool.

Families, caregivers and guardians of individual with special needs can sign up for the Vitals App for free.

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