ACC 911 center gets big upgrade

The Athens-Clarke County Police Department has recently made a huge improvement to their process for handling medical 911 calls – it’s called “emergency medical dispatch” and it could save lives.

Emergency medical dispatch (EMD) is an optimized system that allows dispatchers to quickly process medical 911 calls while providing a higher level of care for patients. EMD dispatchers are trained to stay on the call with a patient until the ambulance arrives, allowing them to give medical advice and instructions for how to perform first aid or CPR, for example. EMD also allows paramedics to have more information about what to expect when they arrive on-scene, speeding up the delivery of lifesaving care by crucial seconds.

Most importantly, according to ACCPD Captain John Radford, 911 callers in Athens will no longer need to explain their emergency twice – once to the 911 dispatcher, and once to the ambulance dispatcher.

Wait, those aren’t the same person?

That’s right. Ambulance services in Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties are contracted out to National EMS, a for-profit company owned by a private equity fund. National EMS maintains a separate call center from which they handle the dispatching of their own ambulances.

Until recently, 911 callers in Athens were transferred to National EMS for dispatching, meaning they had to explain their emergency twice. With the advent of emergency medical dispatch in Athens, communication with National EMS is handled electronically and call transfers are no longer needed. 

This improvement by itself could shave 10 or even 20 seconds off ambulance response times in Athens.

Combined with the other benefits of emergency medical dispatch like the ability to give CPR instructions, Radford says these improvements have a “high likelihood” of saving lives in the future.

Sam Rafal, a public safety advocate who runs the website WhenEverySecondCounts.org, praised ACCPD’s efforts. 

“Emergency medical dispatching is a significant step toward improving outcomes for our citizens at their time of greatest need,” Rafal said. “I believe that Captain Radford, Deputy Chief Kelley, Chief Saulters and all the personnel at the ACCPD 911 Central Communications Center have done an outstanding job getting emergency medical dispatching protocols implemented. All the research indicates that these improvements will help our citizens in time sensitive, life-threatening emergencies.”

Going further, Rafal continues to recommend additional improvements, such as entirely eliminating National EMS’ role in ambulance dispatching. He feels that centralizing control of ambulance dispatching in the ACC 911 center will help improve transparency around ambulance response times in Athens.

Currently, National EMS is under no obligation to share their ambulance response time data with the local government, leaving the public unable to provide meaningful oversight over this private company.

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Is National EMS doing a good job? It’s unclear.

The family of some patients in Athens have alleged that National EMS has had poor ambulance response times for years. Likewise, Commissioner Patrick Davenport also had a poor experience with the company and claimed that people in his district prefer to drive themselves to the hospital in emergency situations rather than call 911. Perhaps just as concerning, National EMS was caught spreading false information regarding a failed 911 response back in 2019.

Despite these allegations, Piedmont-Athens Regional and St. Mary’s Hospitals have both repeatedly expressed confidence in National EMS

But are their ambulance response times actually any good? While hospital officials did present some data to the mayor and commission during a work session in 2019, National EMS has never shared their raw response time data with the public.

Making matters worse, the hospitals have not held an EMS Oversight Committee meeting in over three years. They stopped meeting when ACC Attorney Judd Drake informed them of their legal obligation to post notices of upcoming meetings and to allow members of the public to attend as per the Georgia Open Meetings Act. That means there is currently no public oversight over EMS services in Athens and Oconee County.

Commissioners Jesse Houle and Carol Myers are the two local government representatives on the EMS Oversight Committee, but the hospitals have not communicated with them about the role and responsibilities of the group. It appears that, if the hospitals are exercising any oversight over National EMS at all, that they are doing so behind closed doors.

Centralizing EMS dispatching will make data available for the first time

One of the main benefits of dispatching ambulances through the ACC 911 center, according to Rafal, is that it would make National EMS’ response time data publicly-available for the first time. Since National EMS currently dispatches its own ambulances, the company also retains control over the response data, which it refuses to release.

Yes. Rafal and Athens for Everyone released four years of unprocessed data in 2018. The data showed that National EMS consistently failed to meet the response times required in their contract. However, this dataset had a major flaw. It did not include any information about the nature of the 911 calls, and thus may have lumped together true emergent responses with lower-priority calls.

Rafal’s 2018 dataset provides evidence that National EMS may not have response times up to national standards, but it’s not a smoking gun.

At the recommendation of the ACC Police Department, commissioners decided to centralize 911 dispatching back in 2020. At the time, ACCPD officials estimated it would take three years to complete the transition.

Three years later, the move is still not finished, and Radford doesn’t know when it will be finalized. The reason for the delay, he says, is primarily one of staffing.

“Until we are at a sufficient level of staffing, we will not be able to take over the dispatching of National EMS ambulances,” Radford told APN. “We have been working on filling our existing vacancies by hiring some personnel, but still have some way to go to be fully staffed.”

ACCPD implemented emergency medical dispatch protocols at the ACC 911 center in January of this year. 

APN and WhenEverySecondCounts.org will continue to monitor this important story as it progresses.

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