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Hall County scraps plan to remove ambulances from 3 fire stations
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Hall County Fire Services Chief Jeff Hood, right, and Deputy Chief Mark Arnold participate in a Friday press conference announcing that the county was scrapping a plan to pull EMS staff out of three stations in rural Hall. - photo by Nick Bowman

Hall County leaders have canceled a plan to remove three ambulance units from rural areas.

Ambulances will remain at Stations 9, 10 and 11, county administration announced Friday morning, after a week of public scrutiny and criticism of the plan. Those stations were near Gillsville, the Candler area and Murrayville.

The policy switch due to take place in October was revealed to the public by The Times on Aug. 30. News of the coming change had been leaking to the public in the preceding days, creating anxiety among those in rural Hall.

Hall County Fire Services Chief Jeff Hood and Deputy Chief Mark Arnold, interim County Administrator Jock Connell, Assistant County Administrator Marty Nix, Finance Director Zachary Propes and county spokeswoman Katie Crumley announced the change in a Friday press conference at the Hall County Emergency Services Complex. No members of the Hall County Board of Commissioners attended.

“After a lot of thought and reflection and discussion, we’ve decided to leave the current model in place as it currently stands,” Crumley said.

The decision to cancel the switch was made by administrators and commissioners on Thursday, according to the officials present at the Friday meeting.

Keeping the current operation in place will require about $1 million in additional overtime for fire services staff to cover the county’s busiest areas, according to officials. Propes said the overtime will be paid using county savings in its fund balance.

“We feel like it was better to spend the money and keep everybody feeling safe,” Commission Chairman Richard Higgins told The Times on Friday. “We listen to the people — we do try to listen.”

The additional overtime represents an increase of 34 percent to the county’s fire and EMS overtime budget, currently at $1.94 million. The new budget is almost $3 million.

An employee shortage in Fire Services has been at the heart of the many issues playing into the decision to relocate the three medical units.

An open records request filed on Aug. 30 by The Times revealed that Fire Services has lost 38 employees between January and July, and it needs a total of 51 people to meet guidelines for Georgia fire departments.

The shortage led to many instances where medical units had to be shut down in Stations 9, 10 and 11 to provide enough staff to cover calls in more urban areas of the county.

“When we had to find a way to reallocate resources, those are the units that we chose to reallocate the resources from,” Arnold said.

Overtime has been a bottleneck for EMS service since May, when the county had to freeze overtime payments because of budget constraints, according to Hood.

The result has been that EMS staff in the more populated areas of the county have been hitting overtime caps because of the staff shortage and have been forced to stop working.

When that has happened, EMS units from rural areas of the county have been pulled into the city and South Hall.

“But in almost all those cases, we took the paramedic and put them on the engine with the paramedic equipment, so there was still paramedic coverage in those areas,” Hood said.

Crumley and Connell said the decision to reverse course was based on feedback from citizens. Connell said the new model — putting paramedics on fire engines to respond to calls while removing ambulances to focus on more densely populated areas — was “not compatible” with the county at this time.

“I don’t think there was any thought that we think the model is weak or there was anything wrong with the model,” Connell said. “I think probably the biggest element or a significant element was the input we heard from the community.”

The county has shelved the plan and will revisit it leading up to the next budget cycle, according to Higgins. Planning for the 2019 fiscal year begins next spring.

Higgins stressed that the county was “not trying to pull a fast one” on county residents.

Mixed messages

Since the rollout of the plan at the end of August, the county has offered different explanations at different times for why it planned to remove ambulances and their crews from the three stations.

Crumley said that in its rollout of the new service plan, the county always intended to explain the policy, take public comment (though not during a public hearing, which was never officially scheduled) and make adjustments to the plan — beginning with an Aug. 30 email announcement sent out by the county and staff meeting.

The Aug. 30 announcement makes no mention of the county’s plan to remove the medical units from the rural stations, referring instead to how improvements in technology upgrades will improve response times throughout the county.

Deputy Chief Arnold, Connell and Nix met with The Times the same day. Arnold said the reason Fire Services was relocating the crews near Athens Highway, McEver Road, East Crescent Drive and Gaines Ferry Road was to better serve all county residents. Chief Hood did not attend that meeting.

Moving the medical crews would improve response times in busy areas without compromising care in rural areas, Arnold said, where paramedics would be placed on fire engines instead of ambulances.

The policy was on track to be tested on the ground in rural Hall in September and put into practice in early October.

On Tuesday, Chairman Higgins, Commissioner Scott Gibbs, Hood, Arnold and others met with residents of Gillsville at its city council meeting at the invitation of city council members.

That night, they gave similar explanations for the new policy. Arnold also said the rural stations were underused while the staff at South Hall stations were being overworked.

On Wednesday, Hood and Arnold met with The Times again to discuss the policy change and discussed a different facet: county fire officials were trying to preserve the county’s insurance rating, thus preventing the cost of home insurance from rising.

The county is scheduled for an Insurance Service Office inspection in October, the chiefs said. This year, the ISO changed its rating system to give more weight to fire coverage in more populated areas instead of prioritizing county-wide fire protection.

Because of the burden on firefighters and EMS in South Hall, the chiefs expected the county to get dinged by insurers. To head that off, they were moving EMS staff from rural stations to more urban areas.

In a Thursday interview on local radio, Hood and Gibbs were asked about staffing at Fire Services. Hood said on air that Fire Services wouldn’t be making any changes to service delivery if it didn’t have an employee shortage. Later that day, commissioners and county administration decided to pull the plug on the change.

On Friday, Crumley said the county’s explanations have changed over time because the issue is “multifaceted.”

“You’re trying to get a message across as succinctly and efficiently as possible,” Crumley said. “I really think that it’s difficult to explain all the different dimensions in a press release.”

Settled, for now

Higgins said that commissioners unanimously supported using county savings to cover the $1 million gap in overtime between now and July, when the next fiscal year begins.

The additional cash will allow Fire Services staff to work voluntary overtime without interruption, according to Hood and Arnold. That means medical units in Stations 9, 10 and 11 will not have to go dark to help cover South Hall for the rest of the fiscal year.

In the meantime, the county will collect information about call volume using new 911 center technology, which Assistant Administrator Nix said would help the county better deploy its resources in the future.

“As the population changes, as we have more density in certain areas, you constantly have to look at that. So we’ll be doing that probably weekly, monthly. The staff will always look at where your volumes are,” he said.

A better understanding of peak demand for county services will allow first responders to be more efficient with time and resources.

And next year, Higgins said he hopes the discussion over the new service model goes a little more smoothly.

“It kind of took a life of its own,” Higgins said of the past nine days. “... People thought we were trying to do an end run, but it wasn’t.”

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