By Gerhard Schneibel
gerhard@reporternewspapers.net

Sandy Springs recently contracted with Rural/Metro Ambulance to operate five ambulances in the city during peak hours and three during off-peak hours. The move comes after Fulton County ended ambulance subsidies July 1 to Sandy Springs and other cities in the northern part of the county, which used to share ambulance service.

Fulton County had agreed to pay for services until the end of 2008 but cut subsidies early, Assistant City Manager Noah Reit­er said.

Sandy Springs will pay Rural/Metro $450,000 a year, and the company will have to respond on time to 90 percent of calls to avoid “city assessed” penalties, a city press release stated. The contract allows response times of eight minutes for emergencies and 15 minutes for nonemergencies.

When Fulton financed the service, Sandy Springs had as few as three ambulances available during peak hours and two during off-peak hours.

“I think certainly it will provide the city with a greater number of resources on the street at all hours of the day as opposed to what we had access to prior to July 1,” Reit­er said.

He said it could take six months to judge whether the planned level of service fits the city’s needs. “If I had to guess, it’s either the right number, or it might be slightly too high. If we have too many resources on the road for the call volume, then we’ll scale back, and there would be a corresponding reduction in the cost of the contract.”

Dist. 1 Councilman Doug MacGinnitie has spoken against increasing ambulance service before gathering data on response times. He advocated maintaining the current level of service and increasing it as necessary.

“Figuring out the cost is easy. Now we need to know how much benefit we’re getting. As long as we’re measuring it from Day 1, then I’m happy. We’ll have the data we need to adjust it as necessary,” he said. “I’m sure the staff did a good job.”

Response times in the city are influenced by the time it takes for a call to be processed in Fulton County’s 911 center and dispatched to a unit.

“The public’s perception of how long it takes for us to put a unit on scene, whether it’s an ambulance or patrol officer, is from the time they dial 911 until the time they see a responder,” Reiter said. “You can only effect so much change … if you don’t also have either direct oversight or direct control over the 911 center. They’re pretty intimately tied to one another.”

The city plans to start a regional 911 center in 2009 with Johns Creek. Both cities are managed by Englewood, Colo.-based CH2MHill. Cranbury, N.J.-based iXP Corp. this year was awarded a $528,500 contract to design the center; Sandy Springs is paying $295,161 of that total.

“Both cities are working very closely on the initiative, and so I would anticipate that either both cities will do it or neither city will. But I think it’ll give both cities better operational control over their public safety agencies,” Reiter said.

Once the 911 center is in place, MacGinnitie said, the city will be able to measure the cost-effectiveness of its emergency services.

“I don’t think we have a choice with the 911. I think we’re going to have to take it over anyways, so we might as well do it in an orderly fashion, as we are,” he said. “Let’s measure the performance going forward and make sure we’re getting a bang for our buck.”

Ambulances are now posted at three fire stations and four intersections throughout the city.

“It could be that we don’t have enough units; it could be that we have one or two too many. So we’re constantly going to review [the contract] and adjust it accordingly,” Reiter said. “If we have the right number of units, but they’re sitting in slightly the wrong places, then we’ll move that. Rural/Metro has been a good partner. They’ve been very receptive.”