GILLSVILLE – Standing room only greeted the Gillsville City Council Tuesday evening as council members began their meeting; but few, if any, crowded into the Community Center at Gillsville City Park were there because of anything the Gillsville City Council was discussing.
Rather, the vast majority of the 125 people was there because Gillsville had invited Hall County Fire Services to speak on a plan the county was considering, and from all appearances none in the room liked what they had heard about that plan so far.
Under consideration: a plan to remove the ambulances from three rural fire stations and send them to more densely populated areas of the county, mostly in the southern portion of the county.
And the fire station (Station 10) located near the city limits of Gillsville is one of them.
“We appreciate all the input tonight,” Hall County Commission Chairman Richard Higgins told the crowd after almost an hour of strong criticism and challenging questions, “but we have not made a decision on this because we have not met as a whole commission and discussed it.”
“We will the second meeting in September and y’all are welcome to come to the work session and to the voting session,” Higgins stated.
Earlier in the week Higgins announced that he planned to attend the Gillsville meeting, joining Commissioner Scott Gibbs in whose district Station 10 is located. (Another station - Station 11 on Bark Camp Road near Murrayville – is also in Gibbs district and is also one of the stations slated to lose its ambulance.)
The work session will be held on Monday, September 25 at 3 p.m. The voting session will be three days later on Thursday, September 28 at 6 p.m. Both meetings will be held at the Hall County Government Center.
Hall County Fire Chief Jeff Hood began the evening explaining what led to his department’s request to move the three ambulances. Deputy Fire Chief Mark Arnold provided the statistical data supporting that decision.
Their reasoning straddled two major components: the need to maintain and improve their ISO (Insurance Service Office) rating, and the challenge financially to staff positions within the department.
“Each day we start the day with three less people than we need to staff the shift,” Arnold told the audience.
And solving that shortage is not easy Arnold said. “It takes 30-weeks to train someone to be a firefighter and an advanced EMT.”
“If they choose to be a paramedic it’s another 18 months on top of that,” Arnold added. “That’s why vacancies are such a big part of our staffing woes.”
So positioning firefighters and equipment properly becomes critical, according to Arnold. As a result his department monitors closely the usage of man-hours and equipment.
“We found three med-units that were under-utilized, extremely: (stations) 9, 10 and 11,” Arnold reported. “Those areas were the Candler area, the Gillsville area and the Murrayville area.”
“So we decided to take those poorly-utilized med units out of service and redistribute the personnel.”
But the over-riding concern expressed by the audience regarding such a move was the potential for delays in those three areas when situations necessitated immediate transport to the hospital and an ambulance had to be summoned from elsewhere in the county.
Stan Clark of Gillsville argued, “Everybody on this end of the county is just as important as people on the south and north end of the county.”
Alisha Martinez related her recent experience, saying things are bad enough now, taking away the ambulance will only make things much worse. "A 13-year-old kid (her daughter) watched a man die in my house while I was the one doing CPR and chest compressions for fifteen to twenty minutes. Don't tell me this doesn't affect every single person sitting in this room."
"Why was there not a paramedic there?" she asked. Martinez says she lives in Lula, only a couple of miles from a fire station, but the ambulance she needed had to be summoned from the southern end of the county.
Doug Aiken of Murrayville said, “This whole thing doesn’t make sense. Sometimes the ‘logic’ of doing things is not really reasonable to do it when you’re playing with people’s lives."
Higgins ended the meeting by saying, “What we take away from this meeting is, number one, that you would like to keep your ambulances…and that the Fire Department is understaffed and underpaid.”
“We’ve heard what you said and we’ll take it into consideration and we will talk about it,” Higgins promised. “And I will be asking some questions to Jeff (Chief Hood) and Mark (Deputy Chief Arnold) to clarify some issues that maybe I don’t understand as well as I should.”