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Fire chief speaks to concerns about emergency operations
Dawson County officials say that the fire department's new ladder truck will give the department the ability to put out larger fires without having to rely on help from other counties. - photo by Erica Jones

Amidst a recent influx in vocal concerns about local growth, residents have also shared their unease regarding emergency response. 

During a March 29 interview, Fire Chief and Emergency Services Director Danny Thompson explained that he and his department share those concerns.

“We see the challenges with growth [too] and embrace those challenges,” Thompson said. “We try to forecast and predict and serve the county as fast as it’s growing.” 

Fire Chief Danny Thompson

Some have pointed at call volume as problematic.

As of March 25, there has been a 20 percent overall increase in call volume. When Thompson spoke to DCN at the beginning of this year, that percentage was between 13-14 percent.

At that time, the bulk of responses, whether from fire or EMS personnel, were for medical calls. 

The factors about lengthy response times are more nuanced, particularly when it comes to mutual aid. 

Currently, Dawson County has eight fire stations, including the newest station 8 that debuted in its north-central area last year.

Six of those stations are staffed with full-time firefighters 24/7, 365 days a year, Thompson said. The other two, stations 4 and 5, have all volunteers.

Mutual aid and response times

From week to week, the county’s fire department may require different levels of mutual aid, depending on what emergencies arise. A fire on the east side of Dawson County, where there are more water hydrants, could require three fire engines, one quint vehicle and two medical units, as well as a battalion chief. 

During that kind of structure fire, personnel are enabled to shift more resources into the county and move fire trucks around where there are service gaps. Because resources may be taken from one station and relocated for service, Dawson County may ask one of the neighboring counties to temporarily cover a fire station. Those mutual responders might not actually arrive on scene, depending on the incident. 

If, say, a majority of the six full-time fire stations are helping respond to a single fire, then the chance of service delivery challenges and longer response times increases, Thompson said. 

That’s part of the reason why mutual aid is utilized is to reduce those response times, he added.

Similarly, since Dawson County doesn’t have a hospital, people are often taken to facilities closer to metro Atlanta. 

From the time a medical unit is dispatched to the time it’s back in service, that may be about two hours, Thompson said. The round-trip commute depends on whether a patient is taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, Northside Hospital Forsyth, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Scottish Rite Hospital or Grady Memorial Hospital for burns. 

Just like with fighting fires, it’s also proven helpful for Dawson County to rely on neighboring emergency services partners.

“There are times during the week that every ambulance is on a call or transport,” Thompson said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have anybody to send. We still have fire trucks and firefighters. They’re certified and have the ability to respond to treat and stabilize patients as if an ambulance crew was there. They just can't take patients [to a hospital] in a fire truck.”

Personnel and facility growth

While Dawson County Fire and EMS did have more vacancies at the beginning of the year, making more full-time positions and salary increases have made the department’s positions more competitive, Thompson said.

Currently, the department has a job posting up for a full-time paramedic or EMT (link).

They are also looking for people to fill two second lieutenant positions, contingent on a promotional process, as well as a battalion chief position. Captains and above, including battalion chiefs, have to be paramedic-certified.

Thompson called the numbers a “pretty significant improvement,” and he’s still seeing applications come in for positions. 

Thompson called the special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST, beneficial to the extent it’s “almost 95 percent of the reason we’re able to have the capital projects.” 

The SPLOST VII funds will help cover $2.25 million for any fire truck or engine replacement; about $2.3 million in ambulance replacements; $3 million in fire station improvements and $1 million for another burn building. Those figures don’t include the $8.5 million to upgrade radio systems and construct a new 911/emergency operations center. 

Aside from the joint project, one of Thompson’s biggest goals is to not only put full-time firefighters in stations 4 and 5, but also build renewed quarters that have spaces for fire equipment and volunteer kitchen and office space. 

“They’ve served this community well over the years, and the volunteers at the time did a great job building them,” he said of those stations’ building, “but they’ve long exceeded their life span.”

If these two stations were staffed, it would allow county fire personnel to offer greater coverage while also working large-scale incidents. With more other units in service during those instances, the response time could be kept down and a greater level of service would be offered, he said. 

A lower response time can also have further benefits by lowering the ISO fire safety rating. In short, the higher that figure is, the more homeowners tend to pay in taxes. 

He elaborated later that a slight millage rate increase could help pay for, say, more firefighters or deputies to serve the community. 

Thompson thinks his department collaborating with the BOC will continue to be a key factor in the way forward for improving county emergency services. He also considered it important to keep in mind a departmental vision that takes into account regional growth and fiscal responsibility. 

“Public safety is the number one thing we’re tasked with so we can enjoy everything else in this great county,” Thompson said. “The number one thing is being safe to enjoy it.”