John F. Schaffner
City Councilwoman Dianne Fries likely did not have to remind her fellow Sandy Springs City Council members that the number one priority when the city was formed was public safety/public service.
But remind them she did during discussion of the city’s ambulance service contract during the council’s April 8 work session meeting.
Almost to a person, the council was in favor of spending the money for the “ultimate supreme” plan that would increase the number of ambulances available during peak hours, and presumably reduce the time it will take for an ambulance to respond to an emergency.
What it most certainly will not reduce is the cost to the city, and thus the taxpayers.
Since its beginning, the city has been under contract with Fulton County to receive emergency medical services and has supposedly had three ambulances assigned to the city 24-7. City officials and residents alike have not been pleased with the service level and the response times provided under that contract.
But the unhappiness of Sandy Springs is meaningless at this point. The fact is that Fulton County no longer intends to subsidize ambulance service for Sandy Springs. So the city has to fend for itself.
What the city is looking at are two scenarios — one where they would share the cost in a joint contract with at least the newer city of Johns Creek and possibly three other municipalities and the another where the city goes on its own for the service.
In both cases, the city is looking to increase service and response times in two ways — by having greater control over the 911 service center, which it will operate in conjunction with Johns Creek, and by increasing the number of ambulances available just to the city from three to five during the two peak periods of the day. In off-peak periods there would be three dedicated ambulances to Sandy Springs.
Now for the cost. If the ambulance service contract is a joint venture among a group of cities, the cost to Sandy Springs would be $492,764. If the cities handle the contract individually, the cost will be $450,000.
Councilman Tibby DeJulio asked if the cost is that high why the city doesn’t just turn its Fire Rescue Department QRVs (Quick Response Vehicles) into ambulances to transport patients to the hospital when necessary? He pointed that the QRVs are usually the first responders on the scene anyway.
Everyone, including City Attorney Wendell Willard and City Manager John McDonald, said the city and council do not want to go there. The city doesn’t need that extra liability.
A question raised by Councilman Doug MacGinnitie seemed much more pertinent. MacGinnitie wanted to know how much the response time will be improved by adding the additional two ambulances at peak times. As he pointed out, we are adding a great deal of additional cost associated with those added ambulances and he feels the city should expect improved response times because of that.
MacGinnitie was told the staff could not produce an actual figure for him. But the staff said it is expected that the response time would be no more than 8 minutes 90 percent of the time. Ian Greenwald, the medical director of Sandy Springs Fire Rescue feels that response time should be closer to four to five minutes in order to save lives in the case of a cardiac or other life-threatening emergencies. Lower priority calls or general requests for ambulatory transport are more acceptable at six to eight minutes.
The staff told council that Fulton County measures response time from the time that the ambulance driver receives a call to the point at which the ambulance arrives on the scene of the emergency. That measurement does not take into account the time from when 911 dispatcher receives the call to when the ambulance begins to roll to the emergency.
Response times taken in total, account for up to 2 minutes of call time with the 911 operator, one minute of “chute” time—the time it takes for the personnel to get in the ambulance and start it—and then the time it takes to drive to the victim’s location.
Current Fulton County response times average anywhere from seven to 11 minutes
Greenwald apparently disagrees. He says it starts when the 911 operator answers the phone.
Full data on actual response times has been largely unavailable to the city from Fulton County. What is known is that Fulton County measures using only drive time. Sandy Springs is planning for future services based on using the whole formula.
All that aside, the question MacGinnitie asked seems reasonable.
The city seems almost always think “top of the line” when looking at purchases of equipment and services. MacGinnitie agrees with the philosophy behind that, but simply worries about running out of funds and thus limiting the scope of a wider variety of services to benefit residents.
But, all things considered, politicians always have to be aware of why they were elected to office.
Yes, it was to provide quality public safety and public service. But one also recalls there was concern among Sandy Springs residents about not getting value for their tax dollars in terms of the services they previously received. That balance should be food for thought—always.