Alternative 911 Emergency Response


State and local jurisdictions pursuing alternative 911 emergency response are working to safely triage 911 calls to teams of unarmed responders trained to de-escalate a crisis and link residents to community-based resources. These teams have the potential to reduce reliance on traditional law enforcement and emergency medical responses and can create more equitable outcomes for communities of color and others disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. For these efforts to be successful, jurisdictions must invest in implementation efforts to sustain the impact of these innovative changes to emergency response. 

Many jurisdictions are grappling with how to divert 911 calls to new teams of trained mental and behavioral health staff to reduce the burden on traditional law enforcement and emergency medical responders needed for other types of emergencies.The Alternative 911 Emergency Response Implementation Cohort helps participating jurisdictions develop or expand unarmed emergency response teams that can be directly dispatched to 911 calls to  connect residents in need of mental and behavioral health services to appropriate community-based supports. Through the Cohort, the GPL provides jurisdictions with technical assistance to speed up and improve the implementation of alternative teams that include trained responders like social workers and peer support specialists. This can include analyzing 911 call data, creating training protocol for response teams, designing 911 call decision trees, preparing community briefing materials, tracking key performance metrics, and assisting with procuring services from local providers.

In September 2021, the GPL launched its inaugural Implementation Cohort with a group of five jurisdictions – Durham, North Carolina;  Harris County, Texas; Long Beach, California; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Phoenix, Arizona – and an accompanying community of practice composed of more than 60 jurisdictions. To date, three of the five jurisdictions have launched teams directly from their 911 call centers. These alternative response teams respond to 911 calls ranging from mental health crises to welfare checks and engage with their community’s residents to educate them about the role of alternative response teams and track call outcomes. 

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The twelve-month implementation cohort is designed to provide real-time implementation assistance to cities or counties that are either actively piloting, or anticipate launching within six to nine months of cohort start, the dispatch of trained unarmed responders to handle 911 calls in lieu of traditional law enforcement, fire, or emergency medical staff response. As part of the formal award of GPL technical assistance, jurisdictions receive:

  • Active 1:1 coaching to local government staff on program development to drive implementation, such as tracking 911 call volume, developing staff hiring materials for response teams, and establishing outcome metrics to track equity goals;
  • Access to adaptable implementation template materials and peer government examples including 911 call for service analysis approaches, call decision trees, community briefing materials, program evaluation plans, and service provider requests for proposals;
  • Real-time support from GPL staff and monthly jurisdiction to jurisdiction troubleshooting through implementation cohort calls with peer governments.

The application for 2022-2023 is closed, but see below for information about the application process.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Government Performance Lab?

The mission of the Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab (GPL) is to speed up our nation’s progress on difficult social problems by improving how state and local government human service agencies function and how their dollars are spent. We hire and train full-time employees, embedding them in government agencies to lead 12-36 month intensive reform projects. The GPL conducts research on how governments can improve the results they achieve for their citizens and provides pro bono technical assistance to state and local governments. Through this hands-on involvement, we gain insights into the barriers that governments face and the solutions that can overcome these barriers. 

What is considered as an alternative 911 emergency response team

The GPL’s alternative 911 emergency response cohort is specifically targeting jurisdictions that are developing teams of unarmed, professionally trained responders to be directly dispatched to 911 calls. The makeup of the teams will vary by unique jurisdiction needs and may include peers, social workers, EMTs, paramedics, substance abuse specialists, community health workers, etc. One of the core goals of creating this alternative team should be to reduce overreliance on traditional law enforcement and medical system responses by instead dispatching professionals equipped with the tools necessary to resolve the crisis at hand without creating unnecessary criminal justice system involvement. 

What support can I expect as part of the implementation cohort?

As part of the implementation cohort, jurisdictions can expect to receive tailored, deliverable based technical assistance, guidance informed by relevant national level expertise about the alternative response field, and facilitated learning opportunities with peer cohort governments. A few examples of support from our inaugural cohort include a GPL-facilitated 911 call for service analysis to aid in the selection of eligible call types and exclusionary criteria, responder team hiring support through development of job descriptions and interview guides, assistance in writing an RFP to contract day to day team operation to a local community based organization, and guidance for a team’s data collection process to aid in program iteration and evaluation. Actual support focus will be responsive to the individual needs of the jurisdiction and identified in collaboration with the GPL.

Who should apply?

We welcome applications from any city or county jurisdiction that is committed to developing an alternative emergency response team in the upcoming year. Any local government entity may apply on behalf of their jurisdiction, including any combination of city or county level executive, emergency dispatch, public health, community safety, law enforcement offices, or council of governments. Preference will be given to applicants who can demonstrate cross agency and community stakeholder collaboration, demonstrate interest in exploring innovative alternatives to traditional emergency response, anticipate launching within six to nine months of cohort start, and indicate a strong commitment to advancing equitable outcomes for communities of color and others disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system. We encourage jurisdictions who applied for our inaugural implementation cohort to reapply.


Please subscribe to the GPL newsletter to receive updates about our alternative 911 emergency response work and the implementation cohort. 

What should I do if I have questions about the application?

The GPL will be hosting informational webinar May 11 to allow interested jurisdictions to ask any outstanding questions. Register for the webinar here.

What is required of my jurisdiction to apply for the cohort?

In round one, jurisdictions are required to submit an online application indicating their interest in participating in the cohort. If jurisdictions are selected for round two consideration, they will be asked to participate in a Zoom interview and set up a reference check call with local community partners (see question below).

What will the Round 2 interview process be like?

Round 2 interviews will be held via Zoom call and are designed to help us learn more about the specific alternative response work in your jurisdiction, including your program goals and collaborative structure. Jurisdictions will be asked to bring key representatives from relevant government agencies to participate in the interview. During this round, jurisdictions will be asked to verbally confirm their ability to sign a Harvard memorandum of understanding (MoU), provide letters of support from jurisdiction leadership as part of consideration for final selection, and agree to a reference check call with a community stakeholder(s) of their choosing. 

If selected, what is required of my jurisdiction to participate?

To participate in the alternative 911 emergency response implementation cohort, the GPL requires jurisdictions to submit letters of support from leadership and sign a memorandum of understanding. Once completed, selected jurisdictions will be required to designate a consistent project point of contact in charge of leading the implementation of your alternative response work to meet with GPL staff and peer cohort participants over the course of the year. The GPL anticipates jurisdiction project points of contact spending up to four hours a week on dedicated 1:1 GPL staff support, in addition to 1-2 hours of monthly cohort group learning time.

How long should my application be?

Your short answer responses should not exceed 500 words total. Additional uploaded material should not exceed 10 pages.

Alternative 911 Emergency Response Community of Practice

The Alternative 911 Emergency Response Community of Practice is open to governments exploring, planning, and implementing alternative 911 emergency response teams. Designed exclusively for government practitioners, the Community of Practice will provide participants with practical tools and actionable insights emerging from the GPL’s Alternative 911 Emergency Response Implementation Cohort (see above). The Community of Practice will convene monthly, providing a space for participants to engage with government peers on topics such as:

  • Outcome tracking

  • Team training

  • Request for Proposal (RFP) design

  • Community outreach

  • Stakeholder collaboration

  • Identifying and leveraging new funding streams, including the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA)

Join the Community of Practice

Community of Practice Frequently Asked Questions

Who should sign up for the Community of Practice?

These calls will be relevant for leaders in state and local government charged with the design, implementation, or expansion of an alternative 911 emergency response team.

Jurisdictions that applied to the GPL’s Alternative 911 Emergency Response Implementation Cohort (see above) but were not invited to participate will automatically be invited to the Community of Practice and do not need to complete an additional registration. An email with next steps will be sent to all interested governments in September.

Additional interested governments should register here.

What can I expect during the Community of Practice?

These sessions are designed to support:

  • Sharing: Calls will feature presentations highlighting learnings from the five jurisdictions in GPL’s Alternative 911 Emergency Response Implementation Cohort.
  • Learning: Calls will also include discussion facilitated by GPL staff about common opportunities, challenges, and questions jurisdictions are facing in the relevant topic area.
  • Connection: Participating government leaders will make new connections and gain an expanded understanding of what their peers are working on.

Why a Community of Practice?

During the GPL’s conversations with government leaders about alternative 911 emergency response work, many expressed interest in understanding how their peers were approaching the implementation and expansion of alternative response teams. Based on this input, the GPL is launching a Community of Practice in September 2021 for governments pursuing local alternative 911 emergency response initiatives.