If DeKalb leaders privatize the county’s emergency medical services, the residents will regret that decision, according to a county paramedic.
“Fire and rescue is a vital part of DeKalb County,” said Denise Porter, who works for the DeKalb County Fire and Rescue Department, during a meeting of the county’s Board of Commissioners on Feb. 22. “It’s like the heart.”
When the Board of Commissioners passed the county’s budget last week, they put into motion the beginnings of a plan to privatize the county’s EMS. The intent of the board’s budget is that the “fire department will privatize most all emergency medical transport effective July 1, 2011,” according to the county budget resolution.
Because privatization was not a part of the proposed budget of DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis, county officials are currently studying the feasibility of implementing the idea.
“All departments, including public safety, are still considering all options to comply with the budget as passed by the Board of Commissioners,” said DeKalb’s Chief Communications Officer Burke Brennan. “Nothing will be final until reviewed by the chief operating officer and chief executive officer.”
When you hire a private company, they get paid based on what they do, Porter said.
“When I’m working on a child hit by a car, I’m calculating drug rates, drug doses, IV rates, blood loss–I’m not calculating bills,” Porter said. “Privatizing EMS is not the answer.”
DeKalb County already uses a private ambulance service for some of its EMS calls. The county has a one-year contract with Rural/Metro Corporation, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., which provides emergency and non-emergency ambulance services, and private fire protection services in 20 states throughout the United States.
Rural/Metro has 15 response vehicles in DeKalb County to supplement the ambulance fleet within DeKalb County Fire Rescue, according to Brennan.
Commissioner Kathie Gannon, who voted against the budget, said the county invested “a pretty good fortune” to study combining the fire and rescue departments.
According to the county’s website, the Board of Commissioners appointed an ambulance study committee in 1971 when residents complained about inadequate ambulance service. The committee recommended that EMS be organized within the fire department. In 1973, the fire department formed its EMS division and responded to all rescue calls. In 2002, the department became fully integrated with most stations having an assigned fire apparatus and a rescue transport unit.
Gannon said she is not sure whether privatization is a viable idea for DeKalb County.
“I have seen no financial study at all that says this is a good idea,” Gannon said, adding that she had not seen one that states the opposite, either.
A problem with privatizing is that if there is a problem with a contractor, the county’s procurement process is lengthy, making it difficult to quickly replace the contractor, Gannon said.
Privatization of EMS is an idea worthy of investigation, but there are issues that need to be hashed out, Commissioner Jeff Rader said.
Rader said a major question in the privatization debate is, “What is the role of [the Department of] Public Safety as first responders?”
The county could use contract EMS providers for transporting patients to hospitals, Rader said. Unlike rural areas, metropolitan Atlanta has several ambulance firms to choose from if privatization was deemed viable.
“The success will depend on the details of its implementation,” Rader said.
Commissioner Larry Johnson said he would be willing to support privatization if it is viable and does not compromise the safety of DeKalb residents.
The budget process is an opportunity for DeKalb stakeholders to look at county services and create a better-run government, Johnson said.