Fulton County ambulance service may change earlier than expected

Grady EMS planned to take over ambulance service Sept. 1, but must move faster after American Medical Response said it would be leaving the zone beginning at the end of June. AJC FILE PHOTO

Grady EMS planned to take over ambulance service Sept. 1, but must move faster after American Medical Response said it would be leaving the zone beginning at the end of June. AJC FILE PHOTO

At the end of June, the current ambulance service provider for 200,000 people in the south part of Fulton County plans to step away.

American Medical Response wanted to keep shuttling patients to area hospitals, but lost its bid to keep the service to Grady EMS, which promised faster emergency response times. The state Department of Public Health signed off on the decision May 29, giving Grady until Sept. 1 to take over service.

But AMR wants to relinquish the area faster, and in a Friday letter told Grady and the state that it intends to do just that.

“We don’t think it’s wise to wait until the last minute,” said Terence Ramotar, AMR’s regional director. “We should not continue to do this at our expense, nor should anyone expect us to. We’re extending ourselves above and beyond.”

The transition plan Ramotar’s letter suggests would take part in two pieces: at midnight June 30, Grady would be responsible for ambulance service in Union City, Fairburn, Chattahoochee Hills, Palmetto, the city of South Fulton and unincorporated Fulton County. At midnight July 31, Grady would take over service in East Point and College Park.

Bill Compton, senior vice president of Grady Health Systems, said Friday morning that he had “absolutely no knowledge” of the proposed transition plan, and had planned a Sept. 1 switch over. Later that morning, he scrambled to get emergency responders in those cities on an afternoon conference call to discuss contingency plans for ambulance service.

“That’s just news to me,” Compton said Friday morning. “There’s been no communication with them.”

Ramotar sent the letter outlining AMR’s plans to Grady and the state just after 12:15 p.m. on Friday.

Wade Elmore, the College Park fire chief, said he found it “concerning” that the transition between ambulance services hadn’t been discussed. He laid the blame on Grady, which he said was responsible for the service as soon as it was awarded the zone. He hadn’t heard from them until he got an emailed request Friday morning to participate in a conference call later in the day.

“We may just have to come up with a plan between the cities,” Elmore said. “It’s a big issue. It’s their responsibility to provide transport service.”

Normally, when the Department of Public Health approves a switch, it happens as soon as the approval is given. The size of south Fulton, though, necessitated a longer transition time while ambulances were purchased and people were hired.

In his letter, Ramotar said his timeline for the first step gives Grady seven weeks following the May 10th recommendation that the service provider be changed. Ramotar said he expects AMR to serve as a backup until Sept. 1, when it will leave the area.

“It gives them a decent ramp-up,” he said. “We think it’s more than enough time. …If they say they can’t do it, we’re there.”

In its proposal for the service, Grady said it could provide emergency responses in nine minutes, on average; AMR’s response time is 12 minutes. AMR’s Ramotar said the company “seriously question” whether Grady can provide such service, but if they can, he saw no reason to withhold better response times from residents.

Grady’s Compton said he had secured ambulances and a building in Union City to be a base of operations. But he still needed to hire 150 people to provide service, 135 of whom would be paramedics or EMTs. He expected many of the same people who currently work for AMR to take the jobs and said Grady is in the process of recruiting. But Ramotar said AMR would continue to have jobs for employees in south Fulton, and he didn’t anticipate any layoffs.

Palmetto Fire Chief Henry Argo said he thought Grady would be able to follow through on its promise to improve the service levels. In the meantime, Palmetto will continue to respond to every 911 call, he said. Joe Maddox, the fire chief in Union City, said he was taking a wait-and-see approach to Grady’s “pretty ambitious” proposal.

“The citizens of Fulton County, they deserve a good EMS system,” Maddox said. “I hope Grady can step up and perform at the level they said they could.”

Compton said he was working through the state to determine the transition, and didn’t expect to communicate with AMR directly. He said cities’ transport vehicles could be used if Grady is not ready to go by the end of the month. In an email to Grady EMS leadership and senior administration members, Compton said Grady was prepared to provide service without interruption.

“If there’s some shortage of time, we’ll make it work,” Compton said.

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