The catalyst for Alicia Dinkeldein’s (BSCJ’22) current career came during her Principles of Public Safety class in 2019. O’Neill Assistant Professor Peter Federman was showing a video of Skid Row, a well-known homeless camp in Los Angeles. The video focused on the community-based approach officers take in getting to know the people who live there and connecting them with resources.
The personal connections caught Dinkeldein’s attention.
“I realized that was what I wanted to do,” she says. “I wanted to make one-on-one connections with people to figure out what they truly needed so I could help them.”
What she saw in class that day eventually sparked a new position she would create from scratch. At the time, Dinkeldein was not only an O’Neill student earning her Criminal Justice degree, she also was working for Indianapolis EMS Ambulance Service.
Dinkeldein became part of IEMS’ community response team at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, following up with people who called 911 but didn’t meet the criteria for ambulance transport due to IEMS’ Treat from Home protocol.
“Some individuals we encountered were homebound with transportation insecurities and needed assistance with getting food and medications —they weren’t ambulance-level emergencies,” she explains.
During the pandemic, the team’s work expanded to include the city’s new satellite homeless shelters. They briefly visited each location daily, simply to get a headcount, check on people’s appetites, and see if anyone had called 911 the night before.
But people soon started meeting the team at the door, asking for more individualized help. They found everything from bed bugs to head lice to COVID to cancer.
The team’s person-centered approach began reducing 911 calls and ambulance responses. After the sites closed, the chief of operations at IEMS wanted Dinkeldein to take the same approach at Wheeler Mission’s East Market Street location in Indianapolis—the source of the city’s highest 911 run and call volume—on a part-time basis.
She soon realized this was the community-based response opportunity she had wanted. Still a student with O’Neill, she wrote a proposal to create a full-time position that would allow her to be embedded within Wheeler Mission.
“I’m the only person in the country who does what I do, so there was no blueprint to follow when I created this proposal,” she says. “There may be social workers in a homeless shelter or medical coverage in a homeless shelter, but there isn’t someone covering both of those services at the same time.”
Dinkeldein’s unique skillset means she can assess someone’s medical situation, help them apply for Medicaid, deliver their prescriptions, make doctor appointments, and even work to address any justice system-related barriers they may face to addressing their health. This approach provides a single point of contact while taking the load off other agencies that would have handled each element separately.
“In the first three months of me being here, our run volume decreased by 15%,” she says proudly. “That was huge.”
She’s even started additional partner programs at her location, including therapy dog sessions, supply donations through the Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police, and health classes, including a recent overdose training, during which attendees received their own NARCAN kit.
“A few days after that class, someone overdosed at the Mission and two gentlemen who had attended the class gave their NARCAN kit and saved the man’s life,” she says.
But her efforts extend well beyond the physical side of emergency response. Dinkeldein also wanted to help address the mental health needs of those at Wheeler Mission as well. She met with the mayor’s office to push for funds that would allow her to add a full-time mental health specialist at Wheeler Mission. After much persistence, they agreed. In February 2023, Jay Wurz joined Dinkeldein’s team.
“I wasn’t going to take no for an answer,” she says. “This is a game-changer for the Mission. While we know this shift won’t stop mental health calls to 911, we’ve already seen a significant decrease since Jay arrived. I couldn’t be more excited for the evolution of this work.”
The results of that work have caught the attention of others in the first responder field.
Dinkeldein has been invited to speak at state and national events about her program and approach. Other departments are shadowing her to see first-hand what she does. She’s also helping agencies across the country start similar programs in their communities, something she hopes will help ease problems caused by the nationwide shortage of EMTs and paramedics.
“The word is spreading about this approach and how beneficial it can be, for individuals and for agencies,” she says proudly. “This program has a really bright future. And it really isn’t about me. It’s about making sure people get the help they actually need.”
One of the biggest benefits, she adds, is that this method can be applied to any environment that is overwhelming a local 911 and hospital system—whether that’s a school, a group home, or somewhere else.
“Ultimately, community paramedicine works because we focus on helping the people who are overutilizing the 911 system,” she explains.
That happens, she adds, when you see potential patients as people and build relationships with them. That individual-level connection is what sparked the program and this new phase in her life and career—and it all started during a class at O’Neill.
“I’m really grateful for the O’Neill School, for my professors, and, specifically, for Dr. Federman for planting that seed in my head,” she says with a smile. “Truly, if it wasn’t for O’Neill, I would not be where I am today doing what I’m doing. I am so fulfilled, humbled, blessed, and grateful to be where I’m at now because I love what I’m doing.”