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Whose jurisdiction is it, anyway?

Cooperation is they key to keeping confusion over jurisdictions from slowing response times

POSTED: November 15, 2009 12:30 a.m.
Claire Miller/Times regional staff

Which county am I in? Chateau Corners resident Casey Ramey points to the grassy expanse across from her subdivision where she and her husband were the first on the scene of a car accident. This area of Thompson Mill Road in Braselton is in Hall County, but the Jackson County, Gwinnett County and Barrow County lines are not far; this can lead to confusion in determining which emergency service agency should respond to an emergency.

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BRASELTON - Casey Ramey and her husband were the first people on the scene of a head-on car accident back in March.

The wreck happened right by her neighborhood, Chateau Corners, off Thompson Mill Road in the part of Braselton that falls in Hall County.

Her husband called 911 to help the crash victims, one of whom was "unresponsive, not moving but breathing," and he found himself listening to the dispatchers try to determine which emergency service unit had jurisdiction in that part of town.

"We were trying to get 911 out there. The operators would not believe we lived in Hall County," Ramey explained. "My husband was on the phone and several people had stopped - about four people were on the phone trying to get help out there. It was ridiculous."

The town of Braselton is technically located in four different counties - Barrow, Gwinnett, Hall and Jackson - and this can create confusion when it comes to sending help to a car wreck or other emergency situation.

"They just didn't know and we kept telling them we live right here (in Hall County). We're a couple of miles from the Gwinnett County line," Ramey said. "My husband said, ‘This man could possibly be dying - what difference does it make what county he's in? Just send some help.'"

A unit from the Hall County Sheriff's Office arrived on the scene, followed by an ambulance and fire truck. And for Casey Ramey, her reaction to the day's events was a mix of gratefulness for the emergency service personnel who helped the injured on the scene and anxiousness about the confusion in jurisdiction.

"I do want to make it very clear that I do not think any person was to blame for the delay in response time. The police and firefighters did an amazing job. I do think the system needs updating so it is very clear where responders need to go," she said. "It makes you worry if you're the one who needs help. I was standing there watching a man die."

Jurisdiction confusion

The issue of jurisdictions in Hall County was brought up last year when the Gainesville City Council proposed annexing county "islands" located within the city limits. Some city officials said that the islands create confusion because it isn't always easy to determine whether an address is located in the city or the county. While it may be confusing sometimes to determine who has jurisdiction on a call, emergency officials have said it doesn't affect emergency response.

Leigh Stallings-Jarrell, operations manager for Hall County Dispatch, has said the dispatch center operates on a strict policy of "when in doubt send them out. We're always going to start somebody there, no matter what."

The Hall County dispatch center uploads a new map with color-coded jurisdictions from the county's Geographic Information System every Monday morning, said Hall County 911 Director Marty Nix.

"We keep this map current," said Nix. "So we have a pretty good, at least within a week's span, we have a pretty good idea of what locations are inside or outside the county or inside the city."

The freshly updated maps keep jurisdiction from becoming an issue with emergency response most of the time, Nix said.

"If there is a question on whether something's in or out, we'll always err on the side of caution," Nix said.

Gainesville and Hall County fire departments have an automatic aid agreement that makes it possible for the agency that is closest to an incident to respond despite municipal boundaries.

"The automatic aid agreement has done a lot to satisfy those jurisdictional boundaries," said Emergency Medical Dispatch Instructor Sterling Strickland.

And the agreement means that agencies don't have to ask for permission before responding to a call, said Hall County Fire Marshal Scott Cagle.

"We definitely don't have to give permission (for) the other jurisdiction because of the automatic aid agreement in place," Cagle said. "Automatic aid is used on a daily basis, not just when big events happen like the tornado (that hit downtown Gainesville in August 2008), but on a daily basis, and it works very well."

Some jurisdiction questions were raised last year after a series of tornadoes struck the Gainesville area, concerning whether the Office Depot shopping center located on Browns Bridge Road was located in the county or the city. Because of the agreement, both city and county fire departments responded to the call.

Though the Hall County and Gainesville law enforcement agencies do not have the same agreements, they can usually work out any jurisdictional issues, said Stallings-Jarrell.

"They're really good about working out jurisdictional boundaries," she said. "Let's say if a city officer gets out at an address that's in the city, and talking to the citizen, finds out that it happened in the county, then they'll just call and say ‘Hey, can you send a county unit out here? This actually occurred in the county,' and they'll come and assist them and go from there."

Braselton depends on cooperation

For Braselton, the unique four-county location makes it a little more difficult to dispatch help in the area, said Steve Nichols, director of Jackson County Emergency Services.

"If there's a car wreck on Thompson Mill Road, it could be in four different counties," Nichols explained. "You may have to ask the caller which county they're in so we can tell about where they are. ... Or, Spout Springs Road is technically in Hall County, but if Braselton police get the call we have to call Hall County and let them know to send aid."

Though problems can arise in a four-county town like Braselton, many emergency response agencies say they've developed working relationships with the other counties and have found ways to address the jurisdiction issues.

For the Braselton Police Department, the information from dispatch goes to their patrol cars and 911 response times depend heavily on how far the patrol cars are from the place where help is needed.

The department also has a mutual aid agreement with the law enforcement agencies in the surrounding counties, which comes in handy if officers need more help in the field.

"If it's more than what my guys can handle, they'll call for assistance and we do the same for them (other agencies) - it's a two-way street," said Braselton Police Chief Terry Esco. "If we get too overwhelmed, we call somebody in. There have been times when (Interstate 85) is shut down and I have to depend on other agencies to help and call officers to come in. It's all about mutual aid when it comes to the point where you need help."

"It's complex but it works," Esco said about covering a town that stretches into four counties. "We thought we would have some issues with it, and we've run into a few bumps in the road with that, but most of the time that's human error, and that's going to happen."

Similarly, the Jackson County Sheriff's Office gets sent to the scene when the 911 office informs them that sheriff's office personnel are needed, and those officers often work with the municipal police and fire departments to help.

Braselton also has the West Jackson Fire Department to respond to fires and car accidents in the part of town that falls in Jackson County.
The fire department has a 30-mile coverage area and has cultivated a close working relationship with the fire departments in the surrounding counties, according to Fire Chief Ben Stephens.

"We do training with Barrow County so ... we know how their trucks are set up and vice versa," Stephens said.

Times reporter Ashley Fielding contributed to this story.




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