Fire chief, city leaders ‘on one accord’ about ambulance service

Published: Jan. 26, 2023 at 10:36 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 27, 2023 at 8:33 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Augusta’s fire chief says his agency and city leaders are “on one accord” about ambulance service in the city.

Fire Chief Antonio Burden spoke on Friday, two days after the Augusta Commission approved a month-to-month contract with its current ambulance provider.

The temporary deal is meant to tide the city over until the state appoints a more long-term provider.

The commission earlier this week rejected a long-term contract with Gold Cross, which said it needed substantial subsidies from the city to continue operating here. After that contract failed, Gold Cross said it was pulling out.

Mayor Garnett Johnson said Thursday he wants the city to take control of the emergency medical services zone so it can have more control over the service provider.

The city already has a license for the city to control the zone, but they have to find a provider. Johnson says officials need to work quickly if the city wants to own the zone.

That leaves the state to appoint a successor, a process that “will take several weeks to complete,” the Georgia Department of Public Health said Thursday.

“It’s very urgent. That zone, it actually opens up on Feb. 1, and there’s 10 days to respond. As I’ve stated from the beginning, I believe strongly that the city of Augusta should have control and own the zone,” said Johnson.

Burden said Friday: “I am not inclined to share thoughts on the mayor pursuing the ambulance zone to be controlled by the city. However, Augusta Fire Department is on one accord with city leadership. We will continue to focus serving our community.”

The mayor says he is committed to the temporary solution no matter if there is a possible expiration date in sight.

“Gold Cross, in my opinion, has been a real reputable company and understanding the nature of a contract,” he said.

The temporary deal will keep Gold Cross as the provider during that process.

“While this has been an ongoing issue that the Administration inherited, we are working diligently to find solutions and are proud to have a month-to-month contract with Gold Cross in place to ensure continuity of service and our community’s safety,” Johnson’s office said Thursday in a statement.

The month-to-month deal will cost the city $250,000 at first, then $150,000 each subsequent month, paid with American Rescue Plan funds.

To sign a long-term contract, Gold Cross wanted $2 million up front and $2 million a year – money it says it needed due to rising costs and the high number of patients who don’t pay.

After the long-term deal failed earlier this week, Gold Cross surrendered its emergency medical services zone in Richmond County, and its responsibilities will end on Jan. 31.

The state will not allow the city to go without an EMS provider, Johnson said, so the state will designate a long-term provider for Augusta, most likely from multiple parts of the state.

The Georgia Department of Health on Thursday said: “The Georgia Department of Public Health Office of EMS will work with the Region 6 EMS Zone Committee to open the zoning process; the committee will then accept and review proposals from prospective EMS providers.”

Then a recommendation will be made to the department, and the agency will either accept or reject the recommendation. The process is expected to begin next week and will take several weeks to complete.

“DPH is grateful that local government and Gold Cross EMS have come to an agreement that will provide reliable 911 EMS services to the residents of Augusta/Richmond County during the zoning process and transition to a new zone provider,” the agency said in a statement.

The Augusta Professional Firefighters Association says it would support an emergency medical service run by the department only if it was a separate division from firefighters.

“The previous administration’s attempt to integrate the two fundamentally different services clearly illustrated the issues of staffing, funding, and recruitment that each division faces,” the group said. “We are just now overcoming the ramifications of that particular ill-advised decision.”

The group says it lost 300 employees the last time this happened in a field already struggling to recruit and retain staff.

One of the biggest concerns of the group is the effect on fire response if a separate division isn’t created specifically for emergency medical services.

Johnson said: “We can get the accountability that we need for the quicker response times so that we can have the local accountability, so if we need to call anyone to get issues rectified.”

Johnson says having the ambulance service be run by the city was what he ran on so he wants to do what he can to get this done to keep his promise.

On Tuesday, an agenda item has been added to further this conversation for the city to take control of the zone.