Dunwoody Awaits Study Exploring a City Fire Department

Councilmembers have embraced the idea of an analysis of what it would cost to break away from DeKalb County, where fire taxes have risen in three of the last four years.

It sounds ambitious. Dunwoody officials recently broached the idea of creating their own fire department. From scratch.

The plans are preliminary, at best In fact, it might even be be a little prior to preliminary. The City Council in July informally proposed that the city's staff create an analysis that would look at the feasibility of standing up a Dunwoody fire department.

If it were approved - and any council vote is way down the road -  it would mean a break from a DeKalb Fire service that Dunwoody officials have largely praised for the 300 monthly calls it handles in the city each month.

But costs for fire service from DeKalb County have been rising for years, while some say that Dunwoody is no longer as large a priority for the county fire service as it was before it incorporated.

DeKalb's millage rate for fire service has increased 33.74 percent in the last four years, according to city data. That's a significantly different landscape than when the city incorporated in 2008 and stuck with DeKalb Fire service, council members say.

"Well the goal is to provide the city of Dunwoody with the best fire and EMS services at the best rate," said Councilman Doug Thompson. "That's really it in a nutshell."

The Next Steps

City staffers are busily working on an analysis that can be presented to the City Council for some feedback and direction on what would be a large undertaking.

Thompson, Councilman Terry Nall and Mayor Mike Davis, have publicly expressed that they want to see what that report would reveal. What's the cost? What's the benefit?

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"The City Manager (Warren Hutmacher) has met with different professionals," said Kimberly Greer, assistant to the city manager. "We're not quite ready for that to hit prime time and go to the council."

The council discussions called for a report to explain the ins-and-outs of its options as early as September. Greer coached that notion. The fire analysis is scheduled to be available in the fall but not necessarily September, she said.

Regardless of timing, that analysis will focus on finances; the cost to run a fire department. It could also include proposed partnerships in any Dunwoody fire department effort.

Dunwoody joined for its dispatch service, an intergovernmental service that includes Johns Creek and Sandy Springs, which share resources. A private vendor oversees emergency calls for Chatcomm.

Dunwoody officials tout the success of that partnership, particularly with the Dunwoody Police Department. Greer said that the ChatComm's partnership has cut the police dispatch times in half since splitting from DeKalb's service.

In 2010, under DeKalb County, Dunwoody police response times were 4:33 minutes. In 2012, with ChatComm, that time dropped to 2:14 minutes. Those dispatch time apply to an average of 3,300 police calls per month.

"They are being dispatched twice as fast as they were previously," Greer said.

But Chatcomm has also presented challenges for Dunwoody. Because of the use of DeKalb Fire, calls once came from DeKalb to dispatch directly to its firefighters and EMS. In 2010, DeKalb dispatched fire calls at 2:35 minutes, according to city officials. In 2012, the time dropped to 2:20 minutes.

However, ChatComm, and Dunwoody's use of it, serves as an intermediary in that dispatch process. The 300 Dunwoody fire and EMS calls per month now go through Chatcomm before they reach a DeKalb call taker. Chatcomm uses what is called a "one-button transfer" that forwards the call to DeKalb fire dispatch. That adds an average of 1 minute to 90 seconds to the calls, city officials say.

The reason: an electronic interface is not yet in place for Chatcomm to essentially "talk" to DeKalb dispatch through its system in an automated way. The application of the software to do so has run late, and the costs have risen. The total to fix the issue is now estimated at $75,000 say city officials. They say they're working hard on the fix, but don't predict when the process will become seamless.

Those fire dispatch times are important. For instance, in a heart attack situation there's what's called a "golden" 5-minute period to respond to them. After that amount of time time has passed survival rates decrease dramatically.

Dunwoody officials have responded to this by installing portable defibrillators in its police cars and they've been trained to use them. Dunwoody Police are first responders in most EMS calls in Dunwoody.

The creation of a Dunwoody Fire Department would obviously change this system. Chatcomm would dispatch directly to a dispatch system Dunwoody created for its own fire service.

The Financials

What city council members point to as a major catalyst in spurring talk of a Dunwoody Fire Department is the rising costs to Dunwoody citizens from DeKalb County for fire protection.

Since 2009, the millage rate for DeKalb Fire services has increased from 2.46 mills to 3.29 mills in 2012, city officials report. That's a a 33.74 percent increase in the millage rate that is felt on Dunwoody wallets.

The county millage rate has increased in three of four years, and the county's budget could again face cuts with the incorporation of Brookhaven.

Nall, who first broached the rising costs of DeKalb Fire, say there are other factors in play as well. Dunwoody incorporated in 2008.

A DeKalb Fire Rescue Unit recently was moved from Roberts Drive, in the heart of Dunwoody, to another location. It raises the question of how much priority Dunwoody receives in a countywide fire district.

"It's not just about having a (DFD) fire truck in the station," he said in a recent and wide-ranging interview. "We just don't have control over our fire district. The DeKalb stations are not optimized (for Dunwoody), they are farther away."

The Politics

Next steps are almost too preliminary and complicated to talk about succinctly. Dunwoody currently has an intergovernmental agreement with DeKalb Fire for the service. If Dunwoody went its own way, that agreement would be canceled, and the responsibility of paying for fire would be on the city, which would set its own rate.

How that process would work is not completely clear at this point. What it is certain is that it would be a process. Canceling the agreement with DeKalb Fire and then building a fire department from the ground up would take many months, maybe a year after a decision was made, say city officials.

At present, the politics remain strategically neutral. Officials are quick to point out the good service the city receives from DeKalb.

"Financials for me are going to be a big part of it," Thompson said. "What is it going to cost to run a comparable fire department to what DeKalb has out there," Thompson said.

"The results of the study are where we think things are going to head. I don't have any preconceived notion under any circumstances that we stay or have our own (fire department)" Thompson said.

Jane Stewart September 12, 2012 at 12:26 PM
Brace yourselves. Dunwoody residents won't support a tax hike, so it will be up to the police department who will be all too happy to write even more tickets in order to generate the necessary revenue to pay for their fire comrades.
Ima Reader September 12, 2012 at 12:29 PM
I might consider a "yes" if the Dunwoody Village Parkway project was ditched.
Jason Massad September 12, 2012 at 08:36 PM
Do you think there's an advantage to Dunwoody having its own department if the analysis says the costs will be neutral?
Rob September 12, 2012 at 09:13 PM
The police department, particularly the detective division, is not very good here in Dunwoody. Not only do we have the Sneiderman case as evidence, but ask any seasoned police officer from other areas around Atlanta and they will tell you that everyone who was hired when the city formed was a friend of a friend. There is absolutely no reason to believe that this would not also happen if we started a fire department. It`s just more of that "let`s break away from Dekalb" bunch who are grandiose about Dunwoody pushing for this.
Enuff Govt Already September 12, 2012 at 10:05 PM
Should someone reputable other than the city or county do the analysis? Curious as to D'woody's opinion....
Robert Ostrow September 24, 2012 at 03:52 PM
An independent analysis of this important situation needs to be done. Subjectivity would not fairly state what is going on.


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