Letters to the EditorNews

National EMS Should Be More Transparent

I’m writing to reply to the Jan. 15 letter defending National EMS’ failure to respond with an ambulance to a 911 call from Barrow Elementary School where a 5-year-old child was experiencing a severe allergic (anaphylactic) reaction. 

The letter says, “National EMS surmised the call most likely came in through the company’s non-emergency medical transport scheduling line.” This is an unbelievable statement considering that National EMS clearly has both an audio and print record of that call coming in through the 911 system. When you call 911 in Athens-Clarke County, you have to tell your emergency twice: once to the public 911 operator, who is required to put you on hold and transfer you to the private ambulance company, where you have to tell your emergency again.

According to National EMS, “The Athens-Clarke County 911 Center dispatches the Athens-Clarke County Fire Department, including first response on medical calls.” This is simply not true. Then they threw our 911 dispatcher under the bus by saying, “The Athens-Clarke County E-911 Center dispatcher did not dispatch the fire department.” This is an unfair accusation.

Our 911 center personnel are required (unfortunately) to hand these 911 calls off to National EMS, which is supposed to make the decision of whether or not to dispatch the fire department. Athens-Clarke County 911 personnel are simply not trained to make those determinations, except in just a few types of calls like cardiac arrest or entrapment in an automobile accident. This has been highly problematic. To address this problem, our Athens-Clarke County Police Department has recommended that our 911 Communication Center take over all 911 dispatching (including medical) and that our dispatchers be trained in emergency medical dispatching. This will go a long way toward improving efficiency, increasing transparency and saving lives. We believe this recommendation has the support of our Mayor and Commission.

National EMS routinely and systematically pulls tax-subsidized 911 ambulances out of their state-mandated 911 coverage zones to run patients home from the hospital. This has nothing to do with public safety or 911, but it is guaranteed money for the corporation. This unnecessarily puts citizens at risk of longer response times, since there are multiple non-emergency transport companies that can perform the same service without compromising 911. The reason “EMS personnel did not enter the building” is because EMS personnel never got to the building. The family gave up, and their child was denied the prehospital protocol for severe allergic reaction, which includes epinephrine, heart monitoring, continuous monitoring of vital signs, IV initiation, IV Benadryl, IV Pepcid and IV Solumedrol. 

The difference between receiving this treatment in a timely manner from prehospital paramedics and having that treatment delayed can be significant. In Morgan County, Donna Martin died when National EMS couldn’t get an ambulance to her in time. The Barrow Elementary nurse called 911 because she needed help. It never arrived.

For years, we asked National EMS to release their raw response time data, and they refused. It’s the only way to determine what their response times really are and whether emergency calls are being appropriately responded to. We were told that they are a private company, and they can do what they want. Through an attorney, we made an open records request and obtained four years’ worth of data. It showed 31,055 delays to what the Georgia Department of Public Health referred to as “911 Emergency Responses” out of about 51,000 calls. National EMS responded by saying that most of those calls had been downgraded to Priority 2 (no lights and sirens). When we asked them to provide proof, they refused. When we asked them to identify the criteria used to downgrade calls to Priority 2 (a dangerous practice), they refused. The EMS “Oversight” Committee offered no support in our request for documentation of claims and transparency.

We have been asking for open EMS Oversight Committee Meetings for years and have been denied. We were told they are a private company, and they don’t have to have open meetings. These meetings are held in secret, not announced on any calendar and closed to the public. Ambulance calls come in through our public 911 system, occur in state mandated EMS coverage zones and are run with taxpayer subsidized 911 ambulances. They deal directly with public safety. The most recent EMS Oversight Committee Meeting was canceled after the county attorney advised both hospitals and National EMS that their closed meetings were in violation of state Open Meetings Laws.

At a recent ACC Work Session, Commissioner Mariah Parker asked EMS Oversight Committee Director and Piedmont Athens VP Dee Burkett, “What is the fear of transparency?” Burkett responded, “There’s no fear of transparency.” Commissioner Parker continued, “Then why is it…” Burkett interrupted Parker to say, “So, this is private information. So, as I mentioned, this [National EMS] is a department of the hospital.”

Only it’s not a department of the hospital. It seems the EMS “Oversight” Committee is trying to use this as a justification to add another layer of secrecy to their dealings with the public. Sounds like a fear of transparency to me. What are they trying to hide? See 31,55 delayed “911 Emergency Responses” referenced above.

Lastly, we are interested in more than just response times. We are interested in transparency, open meetings, open records, Basic Life Support (BLS) response to Advanced Life Support (Paramedic) emergencies, trusting and following the recommendation of our Athens-Clarke County Police Department to handle all 911 calls and use EMD protocols, using tax-subsidized 911 ambulances to run people home from the hospital who don’t need 911, people telling the truth. Lives are at risk.

Rafal, of Athens, is a former emergency medical technician and founder of