Dunwoody’s current mayor and the councilmember running to replace him are expressing vastly different opinions on DeKalb County’s EMS service following the county’s decision this month to extend its contract with controversial ambulance provider American Medical Response through September. The contract was scheduled to end June 30.
Councilmember and mayoral candidate Terry Nall continues to beat the drum that AMR’s slow response times in Dunwoody violates the county’s contractual agreement with the city. Adding another three months to AMR’s contract means delayed responses to emergency calls will add up even more, he said, and could put people’s lives at risk. The extension also strengthens his argument Dunwoody should be part of a separate EMS zone, he added.
Mayor Denis Shortal, who is not seeking re-election, said he questions the validity of response times being the only criteria to judge the county’s EMS service. He said he believes the city now has the best ambulance coverage in its history with three full-time ambulances stationed in the city and one stationed in the city on weekdays during peak hours. He said he has no problem with the contract extension as long as it ensures the best provider is selected and ready to provide service immediately.
Added to this dispute between Shortal and Nall is the recent suggestion by the Sandy Springs fire chief that municipalities wanting to improve ambulance response times consider paying more for additional ambulances. Sandy Springs also contracts with AMR and Sandy Springs City Council approved spending $260,000 per year for five years to add three ambulances to keep up with demand.
Nall said he would never support paying DeKalb County or AMR “any amount of money” because it is up to the county to meet its contractual agreement with the city for ambulance response times.
“DeKalb County has a contract performance failure with Dunwoody. There is no way I would support paying DeKalb County or AMR any amount of money,” he said. “DeKalb County must fulfill its contractual obligations. The county is not meeting its contractual obligations for ambulance response times.”
Shortal, on the other hand, said he is not willing to take anything off the table, including the city subsidizing additional ambulances. “Well, I hope we don’t have to do that, but I’m not ruling that out,” he said. “You can’t put a cost on a human life.”
Dunwoody has been voicing its concerns with AMR’s slow response times since 2016. In response to the complaints, the state EMS Council overseeing DeKalb last year appointed an ad-hoc committee to review DeKalb County’s EMS services and the city’s request for its own EMS zone. The committee is scheduled to meet again July 18 at Dunwoody City Hall.
AMR’s original contract expired Dec. 31, but was extended through June 30 as a new request for proposal was drawn up. The RFPs were made public in March and in May three companies submitted bids: AMR, Grady EMS and PatientCare Logistics Solutions.
Original plans were to have the Board of Commissioners vote on an ambulance service contract in June. More time is needed for an evaluation committee to review the complicated bids submitted, according to DeKalb officials.
Hoping to address immediate concerns, the city entered into a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with the county to establish response times: nine minutes or less on 90 percent of calls to life-threatening emergencies, and 15 minutes or less on 90 percent of calls for less serious emergencies.
Since that time, Shortal, who worked out the MOU with DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, has split from the rest of the council on wanting to create a separate EMS zone.
Nall said records show AMR has failed to meet those response times every month since the MOU was implemented.
“I do not see that DeKalb County has taken any steps to bring its contract with Dunwoody into compliance,” Nall said. “It’s time we formally call out DeKalb County as in default of its MOU and report the same to the EMS Council and its ad-hoc committee.
“It’s time we turn up our call for a new ambulance zone to serve Dunwoody under the state statute,” he added. “We owe it to our residents, businesses, and daytime 120,000 visitors to provide improved ambulance services.”
Councilmember Lynn Deutsch said she supports a three-tiered approach to resolving Dunwoody’s issues with DeKalb’s ambulance services: continue to push the county and AMR and live up to its contractual agreement; subsidizing an additional ambulance to enhance service delivery; and, in the long term, creating a smaller EMS zone with other municipalities.
“It’s unbelievable to me that we have a clearly defined problem with ambulance response in a very large county … and there doesn’t seem to be any urgency to fix it from anyone except the City Council,” she said.
Subsiding ambulances with whomever the next ambulance provider is could be the way the county resolves the issue. As part of the RFP, the county included a provision to allow the provider to create service areas to give municipalities or other portions of the county that desire additional service to pay for supplemental service.
Dunwoody City Manager Eric Linton said the MOU between DeKalb and the city on ambulance response times is a binding agreement that means there would be no payment for additional services to meet those times.
“We do not intend to pay more for service that’s already part of our agreement. We continue to work with the Region 3 EMS Council, the Ad Hoc Committee and DeKalb County to get the best level of service for the city of Dunwoody,” Linton said.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the contract has been extended for three months.