A new emergency medical services “hub” in Brookhaven that is expected to improve ambulance response times in north DeKalb County was recently unveiled, but a date when it will open remains unclear.

The new EMS ‘hub’ on Buford Highway in Brookhaven. (Dyana Bagby)

The new ambulance station on Buford Highway was part of a deal brokered between Brookhaven and DeKalb County last year after some cities, particularly Dunwoody, complained about slow ambulance response times to north DeKalb. Dunwoody sought to break off from DeKalb to create its own EMS zone, but state authorities eventually denied the request.

At a March 4 press conference to announce the new EMS hub at 3292 Buford Highway, Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst accused Dunwoody of playing politics in its quest to separate from DeKalb County. He also implied former Dunwoody councilmember Terry Nall, who led the effort for a new EMS zone, was using the issue as part of his unsuccessful mayoral campaign. Lynn Deutsch beat Nall in November to become mayor.

“I could just tell you about Brookhaven and how I viewed it and how my council viewed it and that is we’d rather get response times than higher poll ratings and better politics,” Ernst said at a March 4 press conference to unveil the new EMS hub when asked about Dunwoody’s desire to create a new EMS zone.

State authorities acknowledged DeKalb County had problems in its EMS service through its contracted ambulance provider, American Medical Response, and mandated three ambulances always be stationed in the city of Dunwoody.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst speaks at a March 4 press conference about DeKalb County’s new EMS station on Buford Highway. The station will be operated by American Medical Response (AMR), the county’s contracted ambulance provider. (Dyana Bagby)

Dunwoody’s concerns with AMR were the backdrop for Brookhaven offering the former QuikTrip at 3292 Buford Highway to the county last year to use as an ambulance station, Ernst said. The city purchased the shuttered gas station and convenience store in 2018 for $1.7 million to gain a foothold on redevelopment along the rapidly changing corridor.

But rather than side with Dunwoody to create a new EMS zone in north DeKalb, Brookhaven chose to collaborate with the county, Ernst said. The city renovated the 3,300 square foot building for approximately $185,000 to be used as an ambulance station. The county will pay back $180,000 to the city through a three-year lease agreement.

“And so, we’d rather actually solve a problem … instead of … trying to make someone win a mayorship,” Ernst said. “That person [Nall] did end up losing. So, I think it’s just good politics to actually try to accomplish something.”

Mayor Lynn Deutsch denied politics played a role in their actions and said the city continues to work with the county to resolve concerns about slow response times.

“Dunwoody’s interest in solving our EMS challenges is motivated by public safety concerns,” she said in a written statement. “We continue to work with DeKalb County on response times.”

Nall said in a written statement he was “disappointed” to hear Ernst suggest the city of Dunwoody’s call for a separate ambulance zone and focus on response times was a political issue.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “Nothing is political when lives are at stake.”

“Public safety is the most basic function of local government,” Nall said. “Citizens’ lives matter. Response times of public safety providers matter. Our public safety providers must be provided adequate resources to serve properly and then be held accountable to performance standards, including response times.”

The city of Dunwoody said DeKalb County and AMR were not living up to the contracted time of responding to emergencies within nine minutes for 90 percent of all calls. County officials argued the contract signed in 2013 with AMR was a poor contract that among other things didn’t allow for tiered response times – different times for different kinds of emergency calls.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst and DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, center, at a March 4 press conference announcing their partnership to open a new ambulance station on Buford Highway. (Dyana Bagby)

The new five-year contract the county approved with AMR in December 2019 calls for serious emergencies, deemed priority 1-3 calls, to be responded to in under 12 minutes; priority 4 calls where a situation is under control requires a response time within 15 minutes; and non-emergency priority 5 calls must be answered within 30 minutes.

All response times must be made 90% of the time. The new contract also allows for municipalities to contract for extra ambulances in their areas. Monetary penalties can be assessed for not meeting response times, according to the contract.

“Only because of our call for state action, ambulance response times in Dunwoody improved from its subpar levels …,” Nall said. “Accountability must be an ongoing effort by our elected leaders.”

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said at the March 4 press conference that Dunwoody’s push for better response times resulted in creating a new model for how to respond to emergencies, including the tiered response times. He also said county Fire Rescue trucks and rapid response vehicles often arrive on the scene quicker than ambulances and personnel provide the same life-saving procedures as ambulance personnel.

“We had some issues and they brought those issues forward,” Thurmond said of Dunwoody.

“So out of something controversial we saw an opportunity to fix the system and we have a system now that people in Brookhaven … and all over DeKalb County can be proud of and we are going to continue to improve,” Thurmond said.

No opening date

The new station, currently empty except for a couch, two chairs and a table, will eventually serve as deployment center for six new Ford Transit ambulances operated by AMR. It will also allow for shift changes for ambulance personnel to keep units closer to the north DeKalb service area, according to AMR.

AMR Regional Director Chris Valentin said at the press conference he could not give an exact date when the station would be fully operational but estimated 60 days.

“Our goal is to open it as fast as we can,” Valentin said.

The reason to hold a press conference before the new ambulance station is actually open and operating was to recognize DeKalb County and the city of Brookhaven “for their leadership and hard work to convert a service station into what will serve as an EMS hub that will provide transportation for emergency calls across the northern quadrant of DeKalb County,” AMR said in a written statement.

Besides the ambulances, the station will include IT equipment to deploy them.

An AMR supervisor will be stationed at the new EMS hub, which includes a break room and shower for employees for shift changes. The 3,300-square-foot building includes a common area, an office and storage area. AMR personnel will offer CPR and other emergency trainings to the public from the new site, Valentin said.