DeKalb ambulance provider promises better service; Dunwoody skeptical

DeKalb County’s beleaguered ambulance provider has agreed to increase staff and coverage in areas where response times tend to be longer, though the new effort may do little to satisfy officials who’ve already given up on the company.

American Medical Response pledged Tuesday to immediately boost staffing and add ambulances at two DeKalb fire stations, one in Dunwoody, the other in Stonecrest, according to county leaders who’ve been discussing the problems with the company for more than a year. Within 30 days, AMR plans to contract with a third-party ambulance service to provide more resources. The company also plans to provide daily reports and attend monthly review meetings with DeKalb leaders.

The concerns with the company are long-standing, but it was an incident in Dunwoody earlier this month that drew public outrage after a now-fired EMT was arrested for allegedly punching a handcuffed teen patient. Citing the attack and lax performance, Dunwoody officials voted last week to declare an EMS "crisis" in the city and appeal to the state of Georgia for help.

Dunwoody Councilman Terry Nall said Tuesday the county’s announcement of AMR’s improvement plan changed nothing. Nall is calling for the state to allow the city to select its own EMS provider. He cited a recent instance where an AMR ambulance was a “no-show.”

“We owe it to our citizens to exercise local control over the EMS portion of public safety,” he said in an email. “We look forward to working with the first responders of DeKalb Fire in tandem with an EMS provider dedicated to a Dunwoody EMS zone.”

Efforts to reach AMR for comment weren’t immediately successful.

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To ensure emergency service, the DeKalb County fire-rescue agency dispatches its own units initially to most medical calls because the county’s firefighters are all EMTs, and many are paramedics.

AMR’s primary role is to provide emergency transport services, said DeKalb Director of Public Safety Jack Lumpkin.

AMR bills patients — not the county — directly for the service.

“DeKalb Fire Rescue’s primary role is to provide basic life support until an ambulance arrives. Fire Rescue units are usually on the scene within an average of seven and a half minutes,” Lumpkin said.

DeKalb officials, who hired AMR in 2013, have been pushing the company to improve. Under the terms of the contract, which runs out at the end of 2018, DeKalb has charged AMR $1.5 million in penalties for performance issues. But the company hasn’t paid, citing a different reading of the contract.

DeKalb is now planning a bidding process for a new provider and is taking “reasonable steps” to address the issues and avoid legal action with AMR, county officials said.

Long response times by AMR in south Fulton County recently led officials there to also seek another provider. The company is appealing a regional board's decision for Grady EMS to provide ambulance service for that area.

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