The Brookhaven City Council meeting on June 13, 2023.

Brookhaven City Manager Christian Sigman is calling for the takeover of emergency medical services (EMS) from DeKalb County.

At the June 13 City Council meeting, Sigman suggested that DeKalb County allow Brookhaven to either establish its own EMS or enforce performance standards. 

DeKalb County is in a five-year contract with American Medical Response (AMR) to provide emergency services to residents across the county. The contract expires in 2024.

“We cannot wait any longer for the county to act,” said Sigman, who has seen no change in response times since a meeting in August 2022 with county leadership. 

This is not the first attempt the city has made to remove AMR, a multi-billion dollar for-profit company with operations in 39 states.  

In 2019, Brookhaven built out an ambulance station after years of debate between North DeKalb County cities and the county. The year prior, DeKalb County hit AMR with a $1.9 million fine due to poor service. 

Emergency response times provided by DeKalb County and AMR “are not meeting their standards – or any standards of any community of the size and sophistication of Brookhaven in a major metro area,” Sigman said.

Brookhaven Police Chief Brandon Gurley relayed examples of ambulances arriving on the scene up to 50 minutes after police officers. 

In March, police officers responded first to a person suffering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at Blackburn Park. After 20 minutes, DeKalb County Fire Department arrived followed by an AMR supervisor in an SUV. After 30 minutes, an ambulance pulled up. The person lost consciousness during life saving efforts, and died at the hospital.

“This was a traumatic event that required life saving measures very quickly to get this person to the hospital,” Gurley said. “We could be here for hours going through the real concerns and problems that this causes our officers and the citizens.” 

City Council member Linley Jones called it a “shocking situation,” and said DeKalb County is actively impeding the city council’s ability to protect the health and safety of the citizens of Brookhaven.

“DeKalb County has obviously chosen to outsource this critical government function to a multibillion dollar conglomerate that is not capable of providing the service, and frankly, as a private for-profit company may not be incentivized in the same way that we are incentivized as elected officials to take care of our citizens,” Jones said. “Let’s do anything and everything we can.”

The state of Georgia regulates emergency medical services, so Brookhaven is precluded from starting its own department. 

DeKalb County does not post AMR’s response time online. Four years ago, Sigman requested statistics from the county and has been tracking EMS response times since then. 

Sigman reported that DeKalb County Fire Department only responds to about 10% of all calls, and the ambulance service does the rest. Priority 1 calls are averaging close to 20-minute response times, he said.

“The fire department’s response is subsidizing or masking the lack of performance from American Medical Response. This is the scariest part. It’s almost flipping a coin if an ambulance is going to arrive because 52% of the time they meet their standard of arriving within 20 minutes,” Sigman said.  

Jones asked, “Is there any reason to believe that a response time for one of our [police] officers would be any different than the response times that have been cited to us?” 

Sigman replied: “It’s understood if it’s a serious call, you scoop and run them in the car. We don’t wait on AMR for our officers.”

In a written response, AMR Georgia Southeast Regional Director Chris Valentin said the company is actively engaged with DeKalb County leadership and the communities it serves to strengthen the EMS system.

“AMR values our longstanding relationship with DeKalb County and the communities we serve, including Brookhaven. DeKalb is one of the nation’s fastest-growing communities, and emergency services remain under immense pressure from growing demand coupled with a lack of resources due to recent hospital closures and significant staffing shortages caused by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. These impacts are being felt in a profound way throughout the entire healthcare and public safety industries,” said Valentin.

Valentin said AMR has invested in infrastructure like an EMS Station in Brookhaven and the DeKalb County 911 Nurse Navigation Program and training initiatives,  Earn While You Learn and a paramedic training program, which just graduated 17 paramedics with new classes already underway.

“AMR remains committed to working with county and local fire, police, and other public safety officials to face current system-related challenges and deliver a world-class EMS system for the residents of DeKalb County,” said Valentin.  

Logan C. Ritchie writes features and covers Brookhaven for Rough Draft Atlanta.