Chattanooga programs connect emergency officials, special needs citizens

By KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

Programs created by emergency officials in Chattanooga to better connect first responders and citizens with special needs are now being implemented statewide.
Chattanooga’s Take Me Home program was launched in 2018 as a way to help locate residents with autism or similar developmental disabilities in case they are found alone or reported missing. The program is now being used as a model for a similar state-sponsored program.
Sgt. Vincent Holoman, unit supervisor of the Chattanooga Police Department’s Juvenile and Missing Person Unit, said Chattanooga’s Take Me Home program was actually started when the police department was approached by a local firefighter.
“The concept of the Take Me Home Program was brought to the attention of the Chattanooga Police Department by Chattanooga Fire Capt. Skyler Phillips and Roddey Coe of the Chattanooga Autism Center,” Holoman said. “Both have autistic children and are affiliated with the Chattanooga Autism Center. Capt. Phillips credits his autistic son with finding the program that was developed by Lt. Jimmy Donohoe of the Pensacola, Fla., Police Department. Lt. Donohoe developed the Take Me Home program to assist people who are non-verbal and to improve potential encounters with law enforcement. Lt. Donohoe developed this program so it could be easily shared to other agencies free of cost.”
Holoman said he knew the program would be a good fit for his department and worked with the Chattanooga IT Department to improve it for the city’s use.
“As a supervisor over the Chattanooga Police Department’s Missing Persons Unit, we felt this program to be another tool to local law enforcement if an individual with cognitive and developmental disabilities is found alone or has been reported missing,” he said. “After the city IT department researched the program information provided by Lt. Dononhue, the IT department realized the program was more than 10 years old and very dated. The IT department had ideas on how they could make this look amazing. They made it online accessible to individuals to enroll and for emergency services to easily access it from any device.”
While the program was initially designed for citizens with autism, Holoman said those with a variety of conditions can be enrolled. The program is available to aid any citizen who has a condition that may lead to difficulty in communication or wandering tendencies like Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, Downs syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and Alzheimer’s.
“Based on questions for getting information about the enrollees, emergency personnel could search by those criteria,” Holoman said. “The criteria are tied to the enrollees’ photo, so when a search is conducted it would narrow down the photos to the closest match. Not all information is required for the enrollee to fill out, such as medical conditions that cause the enrollee to be nonverbal and to wander. Since the enrollee has volunteered to sign up and provide information about the enrollee, there are no violations of HIPAA. The Chattanooga Police Department has also implemented policies as well as training on how to handle sensitive information such as medical conditions.”
The information can then be used by officers if they encounter an enrollee. If an officer comes across an enrollee who cannot speak or identify himself due to his disability, the officer can then use the program to identify them. They can also use the program if an enrollee is reported missing by the family. The emergency contact information gives a photograph of the individual, a detailed physical description, and other information that can save time in tracking down enrollees.
Holoman said there is plenty of opportunity for other law enforcement agencies to participate in the Take Me Home program and connect with other agencies already doing so.
“Take Me Home is currently a multi-site on Flywheel, which means that when other agencies come on board with the Take Me Home program, they will have their own site to maintain,” he said. “With the multi-site, there is one large database of all the enrollees. Agencies can search the entire database, or narrow down to their approved enrollees from the enroller choosing their agency as the closet agency to them. As more and more agencies join on, enrollees will have more agency options to choose from, but the only agencies that they can choose from are the agencies that are signed up for the Take Me Home program.”
Overall, the program ensures that law enforcement and families are working together to ensure the safety of citizens with special needs.
“As police officers, we have encountered people who have difficulties communicating due to them being non-verbal or having limited communication skills,” Holoman said. “This program becomes beneficial to law enforcement when they encounter such a person and are able to cross-reference the Take Me Home database. If this individual was reported missing or has wandered off, officers will be able to quickly identify the individual and return them home. I think families can benefit from the Take Me Home program by having another ‘tool of security’ available to them when it comes to caring for and protecting their loved ones.”
The Take Me Home program isn’t the only way officials in Chattanooga are working to help first responders better connect with special needs citizens. Chattanooga Fire Department Capt. Skyler Phillips, who helped develop the Take Me Home program, is also working to educate his fellow firefighters about interaction with special needs citizens.
Phillips said his concerns about how his son might react in an emergency situation led to him creating the Special Needs Awareness Program or (SNAP), a first responder training course he developed with Lisa Mattheiss of LifeLine, a Chattanooga-based support group for families of children with disabilities. The program was designed based on the experiences of local families who had encounters with first responders regarding a developmentally disabled loved one.
“This class is not about teaching people how to answer calls,” Phillips said. “This class is about helping first responders make these calls go easy. The whole purpose – and this is what I tell them in my class – is to make the world safer for people like my son and to be better prepared to respond.”
While the program primarily targets firefighters, the course has also been offered to police officers, emergency medical professionals, and even emergency dispatchers. The goal of the training is to help these responders understand how those with these disabilities may not respond in the same way as others as well as may experience intellectual, sensory, behavioral, physical, medical and communication challenges, particularly in crisis or high-stress situations.
The SNAP training teaches attendees how to better understand:
Challenges faced by families and how those issues might affect their interactions with first responders,
Potential responses of someone overwhelmed by sensory stimulation,
Potential triggers for someone in an emergency situation and ways to avoid those triggers,
Multiple de-escalation techniques and strategies, and
Ways to identify someone with an invisible disability.

The SNAP program is also working with the Hamilton County 911 system, collaborating with a staff member who also has a son with autism, and who teaches 911 Communicators how to interact with people with autism during a 911 emergency call.
“We developed a process where you can enter your name, address, telephone number, the disability and who in the household has the disability – all that sort of thing gets programmed into the 911 system,” Phillips said. “Police, firefighters, county sheriff – we all have the same computer system, so if people have registered, that information pops up on our computers when that address comes up.”
All of these efforts are meant to make emergency calls easier for emergency personnel, the individuals and families that experience disability, and to better prepare everyone for what could be an intense life or death situation.
“We don’t want to get that call,” he said. “We’re afraid that it’s just going to turn into violence, so we just restrain people. We’re so worried about ourselves that we don’t take the time to think about what the real cause might be. So we try to open their eyes by telling them, ‘look, if you just step back and give them some space, you may find that you get a better outcome.’”
For more information about SNAP, contact Captain Phillips at skyler.phillips@lifelinefamilies.org . There is no cost for the training. For more information on the Take Me Home program, contact Sgt. Vincent Holoman, 423-643-7696 or at vholoman@chattanooga.gov.