Ambulance service under fire over response times

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — An Atlanta-area ambulance provider is under fire for slow response times to emergencies, and some are now questioning the state law that requires cities to use specific ambulance providers, even if they may be underperforming.

Vinette Wilson, a former trauma nurse living in Milton, filed an official complaint with the state last month after, she told Channel 2's Mike Petchenik, she witnessed two instances of what she calls slow response times by Rural-Metro Ambulance.

"Minutes make a difference, seconds make a difference," Wilson said. "If they need a critical procedure done that can't be done in the field, we need to get them transported."

Milton, Roswell, Alpharetta and Johns Creek currently have a contract with Rural-Metro that requires the provider to respond to emergency-level situations within 8 minutes 90 percent of the time.

Milton city manager Chris Lagerbloom sent a letter to the Region III EMS Council, which oversees emergency medical services coverage in Atlanta, last month outlining his concerns. He told Petchenik that since January 2009, the company has failed to meet that benchmark more than 50 percent of the time.

"At some point, you have to say enough is enough," he told Petchenik. "We've seen these 15-, 16-, 20-, even, in one case, 30-plus-minute response times. It's just not acceptable or what the citizens expect."

Georgia is broken up into different EMS regions, with Metro Atlanta in Region III. A council within each region, comprised of ambulance company representatives and others, chooses a provider to serve a specific area.

In Fulton County, Rural-Metro serves the north and south, and Grady EMS serves the city of Atlanta. Rural-Metro has had a contract in Fulton County since the mid-1990s, Lagerbloom said.

Lagerbloom said if the EMS Council chooses to, it could open the field back up and allow other providers to compete for the job.

"If, in fact, the zone needs to be opened, the data speaks for itself," he said.

Johns Creek city manager John Kachmar told Petchenik opening the zone isn't the answer. He said state lawmakers need to re-examine the law that created the EMS councils in the first place.

"When you don't have voice in selection, no one in their right mind wants that situation," he said. "We don't get to select them, nor can we say, 'The contract is finished, we don't want you.' We don't have that ability, and that's not a good position to be in for any city."

Milton and Johns Creek are, for now, negotiating a new contract with Rural-Metro that leaders hope will improve response times. They are also looking at an option that would allow their paramedics to transport patients to a hospital if a Rural-Metro ambulance is not available.

"The problem is, once we get there, we can only do so much," said Milton Fire Chief Robert Edgar, who said city first responders arrive to scenes in an average of six minutes. "We need to get a transport unit to get patients to definitive care."

Rural-Metro's division manager, Ken Simpson, was unavailable for an interview about the concerns raised but sent Petchenik an emailed statement saying, "Rural/Metro is committed to providing all of our patients with efficient, professional, and timely service.

"We have been working tirelessly with the city leaders in North Fulton County to come up with a solution to better meet the needs of all the citizens we serve. Through close collaboration we have been able to develop a plan going forward.

"The first step of this plan was a commitment on the part of Rural/Metro to station one additional 24 hour ambulance in Johns Creek and another 24 hour ambulance in Milton.

"We will continue to monitor response times to better measure the effectiveness of these additional resources, and proactively identify areas for improvement.

"Rural/Metro is an engaged member of Fulton County, and we are dedicated to working with city leaders to help improve service and bring about positive changes for the citizens of this county," the statement concluded.

Spokesman for the Georgia Department of Health, Ryan Deal, told Petchenik the Region III EMS Council has asked Rural-Metro to respond to the city’s concerns.

He told Petchenik the company has until June 14 to respond to several questions and there will be a meeting June 25 to decide the next steps.