Dunwoody officials say an agreement worked out with DeKalb County to ensure quicker ambulance response times to address ongoing service concerns in the city appears to be working after its first month in action.

The news comes as DeKalb County extended its contract with its controversial ambulance service provider for another six months.

The DeKalb Board of Commissioners voted Dec. 11 to extend DeKalb Fire Rescue’s contract with American Medical Response until June 30, 2019. AMR’s five-year contract with the county was set to expire Dec. 31. The extension is needed as county officials continue to work with a consultant on writing a new request for proposal and bid process that is expected to be completed by March.

AMR’s contract extension follows an agreement reached Oct. 31 between Mayor Dennis Shortal and DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond to address specific concerns raised by the Dunwoody City Council. The agreement, approved by the City Council, includes adding another ambulance to the city during peak hours and staffing the three ambulances in the city with at least one paramedic.

The agreement between Dunwoody and DeKalb also includes “tiered response times” that call for an ambulance to respond to life-threatening calls in under nine minutes and to non-critical calls within 15 minutes.

Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan told the council at its Dec. 10 meeting that the agreement appears to be working. A monthly report on response times and number of calls, also required as part of the agreement between the county and city, is expected by Dec. 15.

“So far, so good,” Grogan said. “The proof will be in the pudding when we get the report. I know from anecdotal [evidence] that I see ambulances a lot more. And we have not received the number of complaints we were receiving.”

While the City Council approved in November the contract made between Shortal and Thurmond, the members made clear in their vote that their request for a new EMS zone remain open until DeKalb County can prove for at least one year it is meeting all the contractual requirements.

Shortal has said he has backed off believing Dunwoody should have its own EMS zone. In an interview, he said he also has not heard any complaints about ambulance service in the city since the Oct. 31 contract was reached.

“As far as I can see, it’s going good,” he said.

Councilmember Terry Nall said he was disappointed DeKalb County waited until the last Board of Commissioners meeting of the year to address AMR’s contract, knowing it was set to expire Dec. 31. No “plan B” is in place, he noted.

Nall has led the quest to create Dunwoody’s own EMS zone. He said DeKalb County has promised ambulance service improvements in the past, but they all eventually failed to address public safety concerns. That is why the city’s request for a separate EMS zone must remain a viable option for at least one year to ensure the promised improvements continue, he said.

“DeKalb, I know, means well,” he said. “But unfortunately, we’ve have had prior mitigation plans and they fell through. We’ve been down this path before of promises and we now want to hold their feet to fire with the latest agreement and we need to see sustained compliance.”

DeKalb Commissioner Nancy Jester said in a written statement she was unhappy DeKalb officials brought the AMR contract extension to be approved at the commission’s last meeting and had hoped the new RFP would have been completed before now.

“I have not been happy with ambulance services or the county contracting processes regarding this matter,” she said. “The procurement process in DeKalb is controlled exclusively by the CEO.”

The contract extension is very similar to Dunwoody’s agreement, according to Fire Chief Darnell Fullum, such as providing for tiered response times. AMR will be fined $1,000 for each late response time, according to the contract extension. The penalty fee goes into effect Jan. 1.

Also as part of the contract extension, AMR can charge higher fees for transport and medical services. Cities can also pay $145 an hour to station an ambulance in their jurisdiction for “enhanced” service as part of the contract extension, Fullum told the Board of Commissioners.

DeKalb was expected to extend AMR’s contract despite Dunwoody’s complaints to county officials for the past two years about AMR’s slow response times in the city. The current contract states AMR will respond to all calls in under nine minutes for 90 percent of the time.

DeKalb data showed AMR responses were often coming in at 15 to 20 minutes and sometimes much longer. City officials requested in May that state health officials authorize the city to break off from DeKalb to create their own EMS zone.

A state health ad hoc committee was appointed earlier this year to review DeKalb’s overall emergency medical services and AMR’s contract with the county as well as Dunwoody’s request for a separate EMS zone. The committee is expected to make a final recommendation to the full EMS Council in February.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.