Dunwoody’s hopes for faster fire, EMS service fall short

If you have a heart attack today in Dunwoody, it will probably take an ambulance close to a minute longer to reach you than it did a year ago.

You could also expect about a minute tacked on to the time it would take firefighters to reach the scene of a blaze.

After 11 months and more than $70,000, Dunwoody’s move to improve its emergency response system remains mired in a technical jumble that has some residents concerned and city officials working to fix it.

Dunwoody is following a path traveled by other newly minted cities throughout north metro Atlanta where ties were severed from counties in favor of local control of emergency services. And the results have generally been favorable.

“We have made this a priority, and we continue to work diligently on it,” said Kimberly Greer, assistant to the city manager. “We would likewise like to have seen this completed already.”

The longer response time follows a decision last year to switch Dunwoody’s 911 system from DeKalb County to ChatComm, the Chattahoochee River 911 Authority based in Sandy Springs. A majority on the City Council agreed the switch would provide better service to residents and ensure the safety of emergency personnel.

City officials said Friday they have moved one step closer to installing a system they hope will cut the response times, and they expect to begin testing within two weeks.

So far, there have been no documented cases resulting in loss of life because of the delay, city officials said. They point out that police, who usually arrive first on the scene, are trained and equipped for medical emergencies.

Milton established its own police and fire departments within six months of its founding in 2006, then contracted with nearby Alpharetta for 911 dispatch service.

Johns Creek, founded the same year, had its own police and fire departments operating within two years. Then, spurred by a case in which a local woman died after a Fulton County dispatcher relayed the wrong address, the city partnered with Sandy Springs to form ChatComm 911 in 2009.

Because Dunwoody has its own police department, ChatComm can dispatch information directly to patrol officers. The city has seen police response times cut by more than half over the past two years.

But Dunwoody does not have its own fire or ambulance service. ChatComm must transfer those calls to the DeKalb County 911 center, where a call-taker assumes control, then dispatches emergency crews. That transfer and relay of information adds an average of 1 minute to 1 minute and 30 seconds to the process, Dunwoody officials say, but the travel time has improved slightly.

ChatComm normally processes a call and readies it to be dispatched within one minute of the phone ringing. High-priority calls, such as fires and medical emergencies are handled even faster. But transferring a call to another 911 center adds time.

City officials anticipated the problem in May of last year when they contemplated the switch to ChatComm. They estimated it would cost about $50,000 to establish a computer link between the two 911 centers to ensure instant transfer of information from one call center to the other as it was entered.

But, after more than a year of work, no link has been established, and costs have ballooned to more than $70,000. That’s in addition to the $570,000 the city invested in start-up equipment to join ChatComm.

DeKalb County charged Dunwoody nothing for 911 service, but residents and businesses paid a monthly E-911 charge of $1.50 on their phone bills to help pay for the coverage. ChatComm bills Dunwoody about $1 million annually for its service. City officials say the local phone money Dunwoody now receives should cover all but about $200,000 of that cost.

The computer link between the 911 centers was supposed to be completed in January, then March. Now, no one knows for sure when it will be ready. Most officials tied to the project say it will be soon.

As late as July, DeKalb County’s IT department announced it would not allow the link into its system because of security concerns. The county relented a month later but insisted that a firewall be installed before any testing could begin.

Dunwoody officials reported Friday that the city had just received specifications for the firewall, and the equipment has been ordered.

The new link is expected to reduce the transfer time between the two call centers, but William Z. Miller, DeKalb’s public safety director, says there will still be a delay.

“Dunwoody will still have to pass the call onto DeKalb,” he said. “I think where the time saving will come in — if there’s any — is that the information will immediately pop up on our screen as the ChatComm dispatcher is typing.”

Once they are dispatched, the time it takes DeKalb fire and EMS to get from the station to an address has actually improved over the past two years. Public Safety records show crews now arrive on scene in 7 minutes, 5 seconds on average, 16 seconds faster than in 2010. That’s from the time when the dispatcher alerts crews to roll, to the time it takes them to arrive on scene.

The benchmark for fire calls is about 6 minutes from dispatch to arrival, said Lorraine Carlie with the National Fire Protection Association. Some NFPA literature sets the standard closer to 5 minutes.

Dispatch-to-arrival time is one factor used to set home insurance rates within a fire district. Dunwoody’s Insurance Services Office rating is the same as for DeKalb, a 3 on a scale of 1-10. The lower the number, the better the service.

Milton saw its rating improve to a 4 last year, an upgrade from the 4/9 it had as part of Fulton County. A 4/9 rating means there are some areas within a jurisdiction with deficient service. Sandy Springs has a 3 rating. Johns Creek has not received an updated rating for its own service so it remains at 4/9.

Insurance ratings aside, delays on the front end can be costly.

Danny Ross, a former city councilman who voted against the switch to ChatComm last year, said he worries about any arrangement that delays response times in medical emergencies.

“The life-threatening pieces of this thing have been degraded,” he said. “We ought to be able to control our own destiny, and neither ChatComm nor DeKalb County give us the ability to control our own destiny.”

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