Proposed changes to the city’s new contract with provider Gold Cross EMS are up for consideration today by the Augusta Commission, but some in the business say they might not go far enough to protect residents.
The key terms, presented by City Administrator Fred Russell last week, provide for Gold Cross to maintain in Richmond County 10 staffed ambulances from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with six equipped for Advanced Life Support, and six ambulances from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., with four equipped for ALS.
Charles Masters, the vice president of the Augusta Firefighters Association and one of numerous city firefighters who moonlights for an ambulance company, said the number of ambulances is insufficient, while the key terms continue to lack sufficient controls to monitor Gold Cross’ performance, a complaint raised by Fire Chief Chris James last year.
“There’s no way in Augusta, Ga., you can run six ambulances at night. That would be absolutely EMS suicide,” Masters said.
Left out of the key terms are response times, such as the 8-minute maximum response allowed for a “Priority 1” call from the city’s urban area, or the 10-minute response to a rural area included in the commission’s request for proposals it issued earlier this year but later abandoned.
Also missing is specific language about when the clock starts ticking on an ambulance call, Masters said.
“That’s the loophole in all this,” he said.
Georgia cities’ manner of
providing ambulance service varies widely, even in cities of similar size to Augusta.
In Columbus, the consolidated government’s fire department runs its own seven-ambulance EMS service, but supplements the service using two private providers for a total of 11, according to Marie Harrell, the EMS coordinator for the department.
All 11 ambulances run 24 hours a day, all are equipped for advanced life support and Columbus pays no subsidy to the private providers, Harrell said.
The proposed terms presented by Russell show Gold Cross reducing Augusta’s annual subsidy of $1.2 million by $120,000 to $150,000 for the next three years.
In Macon, Bibb County contracts with two providers, Mid Georgia Ambulance and Medical Center of Central Georgia, to cover two 911 zones.
Amy Abel-Kiker, the director of public relations for Mid Georgia, said there’s no minimum number of ambulances specified in the firm’s contract, nor is there a subsidy.
The firm, a nonprofit, has been in Macon for 35 years and is the only provider in the area certified by the Commission on Accreditation and Ambulance Services, she said.
In Savannah, some 24 Southside Fire Department ambulances are on hand 24 hours a day to attend to the EMS needs of all of Chatham County’s approximately 275,000 residents, according to all Deputy Fire Chief and EMS Director Bengie Cowart.
Southside grew out of a fire service that originally served unincorporated areas of Chatham, and has gradually increased its EMS coverage area to include the entire county.
Of those 24 ambulances, all but four are equipped for Advanced Life Support, and the county has gradually reduced its original subsidy of $1.167 million over the last few years, Cowart said.
When the Savannah Police Department, which handles 911 traffic, issues an alert tone to Southside, the clock begins ticking on an ambulance call, and paramedics have only eight minutes to respond in urban areas, he said.
Southside doesn’t get paid until SPD reviews its EMS call records and response times against the company’s, Cowart said.
Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams, who pushed longest to restore the city’s relationship with Gold Cross after the commission voted to put EMS out for bids earlier this year, said city officials were busy tweaking the contract terms Monday.
The changes, perhaps an additional ambulance or two, are “a whole lot better than we had before,” Williams said. But he was unfamiliar with specific changes.
Gold Cross is “a local company,” Williams said. It has “got a lot of people working.”
The Martinez-based firm services both Richmond and Columbia, and was recently renewed in Columbia County through June 30, 2015, according to Emergency and Operations Division Manager Pam Tucker.
Columbia County’s contract specifies five ambulances, all of them 24 hours a day and ALS equipped, to serve the growing county of about 130,000, Tucker said.
Maximum response times for a Priority 1 call are 8 minutes and 59 seconds in non-rural areas, Tucker said. A 13-member advisory board reviews call reports monthly to ensure the times are met 90 percent of the time, she said.
Commissioner Bill Lockett, who opposed suspending the city’s procurement process, said only through an RFP could Augusta be certain it was getting the best service for residents.
“What has been offered is better than what we previously had,” Lockett said. “I suspect had we gone out with an RFP we’d have gotten an even better deal.”
Commissioner Donnie Smith, who works in law enforcement, said he’s suggested to Russell the new contract include response times, using the maximums in Columbia County as a model.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who questioned response times in the rural parts of Richmond County he represents, said he was “waiting on a little bit more information” about the proposed terms to make a decision.
Gold Cross has provided letters of support from University Health Care System, Doctors Hospital, Georgia Health Sciences University and Trinity Hospital of Augusta. All cite the firm’s pre-hospital care and investment in advanced life support equipment and training.
The contract terms are Item 40 on the commission’s regular Tuesday meeting, which is scheduled to start at 5 p.m. in the commission chamber on the eighth floor of Augusta Municipal Building, 530 Greene St.