By Nick Bowman and Nick Watson
Hall County Fire Services plans to cut three ambulance units from mostly rural areas and move personnel to busier stations in the next month.
The units are moving away from Station 11 on Bark Camp Road in Murrayville, Station 10 on Ga. 52 in Gillsville and Station 9 on Poplar Springs Road.
“It reduces the number of transport units that we have, but it does not reduce a person’s availability to a transport unit,” Deputy Fire Chief Mark Arnold said in a meeting with The Times on Tuesday. That cuts the number of ambulances from 16 to 13.
Word of the change has been trickling out of Fire Services in the past couple of weeks, creating anxiety and frustration in North Hall and East Hall.
Paramedics will remain on duty in all of the areas losing an ambulance, which the county argues will maintain the same level of emergency medical care in rural Hall.
The county plans to put paramedics on the fire engine in these areas and make all fire service vehicles equipped with medical equipment including cardiac monitors, EKGs, chest compression devices and pharmaceuticals.
The plan was vetted by the Hall County Board of Commissioners in a series of private meetings over the past month.
“They weren’t all together when we presented this to them,” Arnold said. “We presented this to them a couple of commissioners at a time until we got everybody.”
The commissioners and Fire Services Medical Director Dr. Preston Ball have signed off on the switch. In a Wednesday announcement, Ball called the plan a “proven method to maintain a high level of care” and “is in no way a reduction in service.”
Arnold noted the county might save money on gas and maintenance, but said there won’t be an effect on the Fire Services budget because of the change. No employees are being laid off.
Arnold said the agency was trying to find a way to have a paramedic in every district but also have personnel and resources in the areas of the county with the most EMS calls.
“We’ve consolidated that down to one apparatus that can still work in the response area, provide that life-saving care and actually will keep paramedics in the district longer and provide a greater percentage of the time that the paramedic is available by doing that,” Arnold said.
The beneficiaries of the change will be Station 1 on Athens Highway, Station 4 on McEver Road, Station 7 on East Crescent Drive and Station 8 on Gaines Ferry Road.
County officials said they hope to make the switch by Oct. 2.
When researching the plan, Arnold said they examined Station 3 on Ledan Extension and
Station 15 on Autry Spur, which have been open for years but have never had an ambulance.
“How fast we get a paramedic there is much more important than a med unit coming in later after they’ve had a chance to assess you and prepare you for transport,” Arnold said.
The switch is based on a five-year rolling average of annual calls in every part of the county. At the Athens Highway station, Arnold said the firehouse ran an annual average of 32 fires and 1,366 medical calls.
In Gillsville, the numbers were eight fires annually and 357 medical calls.
Five-year average of EMS and fire calls per station:
1 - Athens Highway: 1,366
2 - Hulsey Road: 658
3 - Ledan Extension: 748
4 - McEver Road: 2,085
5 - Falcon Parkway: 2,262
6 - Lula Road: 542
7 - East Crescent Drive: 1,422
8 - Gaines Ferry Road: 1,293
9 - Poplar Springs Road: 478
10 - Ga. 52: 357
11 - Bark Camp Road: 508
12 - Winder Highway: 612
13 - Sardis Road: 704
14 - Dove Point Lane: 934
15 - Autry Spur: 405
16 - Shirley Road: 342
“The staffing level is not needed in that area as much as it is at Station 1, so we’re overburdening one station because they’re handling many more calls with less people than a station that’s not running as many calls,” Arnold said.
Improvements to the 911 technology allowed for the change, including automated vehicle locators on the entire fleet to find the closest and most appropriate unit to respond.
“Once a call comes in, you have a call-taker that’s sitting there, and they’ll get the address and the nature of the emergency,” said Marty Nix, assistant county administrator and a former director of the county’s 911 program. “But then the call-taker is taking notes … (and) all that data that they’re typing in there now is going real-time to the first responder that’s responding. Even while they’re on the phone, the EMTs, paramedics … know what they’ve got before they get there.”
More advance notice for first responders will allow the county to dispatch an ambulance only if transport to a hospital is needed instead of on every call, Arnold said.
Fire officials believe the policy change will lead to faster response times from paramedics and — paired with advances in communication technology and medical care in the state — better health outcomes for those needing emergency care.
But residents in North Hall and East Hall, where many of the ambulances are being removed, are nervous about the change and frustrated by how it has been rolled out.
“We’re the ones paying taxes up in this end of the county, but it seems like it’s this end of the county that’s getting the shaft on this,” said Gillsville resident Tonita Buffington. “It’s like they were trying to do it secretively — they did not want it to come out — or else there would have been a public notice.”
Buffington, 57, lives on her farm with three other families and said farmers have needed emergency medical care on her property “numerous times.”
She said she’s worried that having an ambulance farther away will mean longer waits for care or transport to the hospital. Arnold said that isn’t so.
“The perception (is), ‘It has to be a box on wheels to provide emergency medical care to paramedic level and make a difference in my emergency.’ That is not the case,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be the ambulance itself. We’ll get a transport unit there within an amount of time that isn’t any different than if a med unit were in the station because the paramedic is there providing you care.”
Buffington’s worry was compounded by confusion after a flier was circulated online this week advertising a meeting between Fire Services leadership and the general staff as a “town hall meeting.”
It was never intended as a public meeting, and Hall County spokeswoman Katie Crumley spent Tuesday doing damage control with North Hall residents who thought they would have a chance to weigh in on the policy change.
“The plan has always been to alert the public and make them aware,” Crumley said during the Tuesday meeting. “... I think some citizens found out before we had an opportunity to prepare this, but this was never planned to be something that we sprang on citizens, and it’s not something that is going into effect right away.”
Arnold said the plan was vetted by all levels of Fire Services employees, county administration and commissioners — asking people at every step to “make sure that if there’s a hurdle that we have missed you bring it to our attention.”
“It doesn’t make sense to close down three med units when the fire department’s most of their calls are EMS-related,” former firefighter/paramedic Donald McCrary said.
With most of his family in the Murrayville area or close to the Dawson County line, McCrary said he is worrying about what medical unit will be available to respond in case of an emergency. He called 911 twice last year for his mother.
“Both times, Medic 11, which is one of the med units that’s set to shut down, had to transport her to the medical center. She was admitted both times to the hospital,” he said.
Fire Services initially planned to remove a medical unit from the Lula area, but reversed the decision on Wednesday.
Crumley said the reversal was “the best option in order to provide the highest level of service to citizens,” but didn’t offer any more details.
Commissioner Kathy Cooper, who represents the South Hall area benefiting from the policy change, said on Wednesday that she was convinced that Fire Services is acting in the best interest of the county, including North Hall.
Commissioner Scott Gibbs, whose district covers North Hall and East Hall, could not be reached for comment by deadline Wednesday.
Cooper also said the county acted appropriately in how it was rolling out the change to medical units.
“I feel like they went about it in the professional manner they needed to,” Cooper said. “You do get influence from the people that would be unsure about it, and we pay these people to make sure that they’re taking care of the public, and you’ve got to have that confidence in them.”