Augusta Commission member Grady Smith has recent firsthand experience with the city’s ambulance service provider, Gold Cross.
When he lost two pints of blood after a stitch in his foot burst last month, Smith was glad that Gold Cross emergency medical technicians arrived quickly and whisked him away to a hospital, where he remained for two weeks.
“Those fellows were first class. They did a great job,” Smith said. He questions whether Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department first responders, despite similar training, could have handled his situation so well.
“Send me the man or the team that can do the job,” he said.
Good reputation aside, momentum is building among other commissioners to revisit the city’s 8-year-old Gold Cross contract, which requires the city give nine months’ notice if it plans to re-bid the service.
The effort, most are quick to say, isn’t a referendum on Gold Cross but rather the city’s inability to gauge the quality of the service.
A push to review the contract, initiated by Fire Chief Chris James after he was promoted last year, gained steam after Gold Cross applied to become Augusta’s primary zone provider, which would have allowed it to bypass the city’s 911 office and run ambulance service without a contract. The application was rejected.
James’ primary issues with the contract are that it offers no guarantees that Gold Cross provide the city with response times, maintain a minimum number of ambulances in Augusta, use Advanced Life Support units, or inform the city where the trucks are located or unavailable, contrary to a Georgia Emergency Management Agency program specifying that all have vehicle locators aboard.
“We have a new fire chief, and of course he’s going to evaluate that,” Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson said. “It wasn’t about anybody not doing their job, or anything like that.”
Johnson speculated that in 2005, when the contract was written, the guarantees James now seeks were uncommon. That year, the city selected Gold Cross at a $1.9 million annual fee over American Medical Response, which proposed a $400,000 fee, while previous provider Rural Metro declined to submit a proposal.
“The contract is old and poorly written, just like all the other contracts we’re dealing with.” Commissioner Bill Lockett said, “We were not wanting to review the contract for any perceived poor performance.”
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said the review of the Gold Cross contract is only the first of many he hopes the commission will take “to make sure they are competitive. Like (Commissioner Alvin) Mason said, Gold Cross won’t be knocked out if they come in competitively.”
Commissioner Donnie Smith said his biggest concern was that a study committee assigned to review the contract might lack knowledge and objectivity.
“What I want to know before I vote is who is going to be on this panel and whether they are qualified to be there,” said Smith, a lieutenant with the Georgia State Patrol. “I don’t think people who are laymen should be on this committee.”
Smith suggested asking emergency management directors or other public safety professionals from outside Augusta to help determine what it needs.
“I don’t want there to be any taint toward the contract,” he said.
“My biggest concern is whether the current contract needs to be updated,” said Commissioner Bill Fennoy, who worked in public health for years. “Whether the service we are requesting is adequate and whether it meets the needs of the citizens of Richmond County. Whoever gets the contract at this particular point in time is not as important to me as the services that we are requesting, and what needs to be added or deleted.”
Besides Grady Smith, the least skeptical of the commissioners is Marion Williams, the only one to have served on the commission that hired Gold Cross and who led the city’s public safety committee at the time.
“I think once you hire a service, you let them provide the service,” Williams said. “I can’t get mad because somebody got a lesser contract than I did.”
Still, Williams was receptive Thursday to reviewing the agreement.
“I think it’s time to look at the contract, to see what we’ve got,” he said.
City Administrator Fred Russell, who signed off on the existing contract, said former 911 Director Phil Wasson was most involved in crafting it. Russell said the agreement, while in need of updating, hadn’t failed residents.
“I don’t remember receiving any complaints in the last several years regarding EMS services,” Russell said. “People here are not afraid to complain.”