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Emergency calls spike in bad economy

Calls for emergency services seem to increase as the overall economy plummets and more residents find themselves without medical or health insurance, said Clayton County Fire Chief Jeff Hood.

Hood, who is also the county's director of Emergency Management Services, spoke Wednesday to Clayton County Rotary Club members. He outlined top projects and shared statistics on the number of calls the fire department handles annually. Hood said the number of calls for service appears to go up as the economy goes down.

"As the economy gets worse, the call volumes go up," he said. "I believe it is due, in part, to an uncompensated health-care system. When people don't have insurance, they call 911. A lot of times, they don't even get carried into the hospital on a stretcher, they just walk in from the ambulance."

Fire and emergency personnel can't decide who gets treated, and who doesn't, he said. "By law, we have to transport them, if they call 911," said Hood.

Clayton County has a 43-percent collection rate on bills sent out for medical calls, of which Hood said the federal government writes off 17 percent. Clayton fire and rescue personnel worked 29,466 emergency calls in 2010, a 7-percent increase over 2009, and 974 fires. The department handled 407 hazardous situations and, of 19,371 calls for medical help, transported 15,274 patients to hospitals.

"As of July, we are on pace for a 21-percent increase for 2011, over 2010," he said. "We are not just a fire department, but emergency management services, too. We handle just about everything and anything. If 911 operators can't figure out who to send to a call, they send the fire department. "

Rotary members were curious about penalties for false fire alarms. Hood said it costs the county $25-$30 every time a fire truck leaves the station on such calls. "Under the county's false alarm ordinance, you get two freebies on false alarm calls," he said. "On the third one, the county starts charging you for us to send out a truck. If it is not a confirmed event, we will send out just one unit until we get more information."

Officials are also looking at implementing a three-digit, non-emergency number to handle some of the other calls to the 911 center. "People will call in for anything, some call in to find out what time it is," said Hood. "It's ridiculous. We're looking at ways to reduce false alarms and calls like that."

The county's Emergency Management Agency responds to major emergencies and natural disasters, like the snow-and-ice storm that crippled the region for three days in January. Hood said Clayton got accolades for how well emergency personnel handled the weather crisis.

"Everyone should have an emergency plan," he said. "Whether it is a business or government agency or residents. You can go to www.readyclayton.com, for information on setting up an emergency plan."

The department is also working on several major projects, including the construction of a $4.1 million, multi-purpose building, using Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds. Hood said the building can be used as a regional training facility, which would generate revenue for the county's general fund.

Fire officials are hoping to improve the county's Class 3 ISO rating. The Insurance Services Office rating scale is 1-10, with 1 being the best.

"We are proud of our rating, because there are very few agencies in the state with a Class 3, less than four with a Class 2," he said. "There is only one in the state with a Class 1, and that's Macon-Bibb County. They practically have a fire station on every corner. We hope to improve our Class 3 rating, because it has a direct impact on insurance rates."