Photo Credit: Clarke County School District
National EMS, the private ambulance company serving Athens, made false statements to the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission, police and fire departments, and an oversight committee regarding an emergency call from Barrow Elementary earlier this year, a Flagpole investigation found.
On Aug. 13, a 5-year-old at Barrow had a severe allergic reaction to peanuts. He was given an EpiPen by the school nurse, who then dialed 911 to call an ambulance. That ambulance never came. After 15 minutes of waiting, the child’s parents took him to the hospital on their own, so the nurse called 911 again to cancel the ambulance request. The parents didn’t file a complaint, so the story could have ended there. However, the issue was revived by public safety advocates Sam Rafal and Bob Gadd.
Rafal and Gadd have been speaking out for years on the dangers of for-profit public safety agencies. Rafal brought up the failed Barrow Elementary response on at least two occasions at commission meetings. Gadd, a recently retired paramedic who at one time worked for National EMS, submitted an open records request on Oct. 2 for the audio of the Barrow 911 call. However, the ACC 911 call center initially had trouble locating the call in their system. This led Mark Melvin, assistant chief for ACC Fire and Emergency Services, to ask National EMS about the call. Fire department EMTs are often the first to respond to medical emergencies, but in this case, they were not dispatched by National, even though Fire Station No. 3 is right down the street from Barrow.
National EMS told Melvin that the Barrow Elementary 911 call did not exist in the ACC 911 center’s system and that they should stop looking for it. This was untrue. The National representative also told Melvin that the Barrow nurse never dialed 911, and instead called National’s non-emergency number, bypassing the 911 call center. This statement was also untrue, according to Amy Roark, the Clarke County School District’s director of nursing, and Capt. Keith Kelley, central communications division commander of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department.
National later sent a report on the incident to both the mayor and commission and the EMS Oversight Committee, made up of county officials and hospital administrators. This report included additional false and misleading statements. For example, it made the alarming claim that some CCSD schools are unable to call 911, due to an incompatibility between their phones and the ACC 911 system. Taylor Duke, executive director of technology services for CCSD, confirmed that all CCSD schools are capable of calling 911.
The call was uncovered during a second search performed at Flagpole’s request. It likely also would have been uncovered had the original search continued. National EMS keeps records of every 911 call it receives.
The question remains, why did the ambulance fail to show on Aug. 13? Rafal and Gadd believe this incident is emblematic of a larger problem with EMS in Athens. They have been pushing for a number of reforms, including more transparency for EMS Oversight Committee meetings, which are currently closed to the public. Perhaps even more urgently, they have requested that the ACC 911 call center take over the handling of all 911 calls. Currently, medical calls are transferred to National EMS, which then dispatches an ambulance and, in most cases, fire department EMTs as well. ACCPD supports Rafal and Gadd’s suggestion to centralize all 911 calls, and has made this as an official recommendation to the mayor and commission in 2017 and again this year. Had these reforms been in place before the Barrow incident, “we would have known the location of every ambulance in the system, the fire department would have been dispatched, and the records would have been immediately available,” said Rafal.
Commissioner Tim Denson has called the lack of transparency by National EMS “unacceptable” and said that the incident at Barrow was “getting close to a cover up.” He believes that Piedmont Athens Regional and Saint Mary’s, who own the EMS region contract and who employ National EMS, may be violating state sunshine laws by holding closed-door oversight meetings. Rafal and Gadd will continue to push for more transparency as part of a suite of reforms they are proposing to the mayor and commission. Among the supporters is Commissioner Patrick Davenport, who several years ago had to drive his mother to the hospital himself after a National EMS ambulance didn’t arrive in a timely fashion. But before the Barrow incident, both hospitals were strongly in support of National EMS and opposed additional transparency for the EMS Oversight Committee.
National EMS did not respond to requests for comment.