Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories examining growth in Bryan County.
Business is booming for Bryan County Emergency Services Director Freddy Howell.
Not that that’s a good thing.
Howell, who oversees the county’s fire, EMS and emergency management personnel, has seen the call volume his first responders handle increase steadily in the five years he’s been in Bryan County. In 2013, Howell’s first year here, Bryan County EMS responded to 3,220 EMS calls — meaning calls for ambulances — and 1,017 fire calls, for a total of 4, 237.
In 2017, that number increased to 4,284 calls for EMS help and 1,759 for fire, a total of 6,043.
“It’s been a steady increase, there’s no doubt about that,” said Howell, who doesn’t blame the increase entirely on growth. “The population is getting older, for one thing, and more people are calling EMS,” he said. “Another thing is that the economy is booming, and more people have money to buy gas and are out traveling, moving up and down the highway. That means more potential for accidents.”
Still, the major impact is Bryan’s growing population.
“We were something like the 22nd fastest growing community in the United States at one point,” Howell said. “When you have an influx of people, when you go from having a population of 30,000 to 45,000 or so, there are going to be more calls. There’s more potential for accident and injuries.”
Bryan County has worked to keep up with the growth, officials say. Bryan EMS has added new first responder positions and additional fire engines and ambulances, according to County Administrator Ben Taylor.
Personnel costs alone have increased by 41 percent for EMS and 90 percent for firefighters since 2013, according to Taylor.
“We added six new positions last year,” he said. “And if you take the budget and look at it, even with SPLOST dollars, you see there’s been a shift from rec to emergency services.”
Currently, Bryan County spends about $4.5 million annually on emergency services. It’s money that comes from an assortment of sources, from fire fees to property taxes.
The funds help Howell’s department provide 24-hour EMS and fire coverage and he’s upped both the number of ambulances from four to six and fire stations manned by full time firefighters from two to four on both ends of the county, which has a total of 10 fire stations.
In fact, Taylor said Bryan County currently spends more per capita on emergency services than all but one coastal Georgia county. In a 2016 study, he found that Bryan spent $104.52 per person annual on public safety, second only to Camden County among coastal counties.
Camden spends $122.69 per person. But officials say EMS isn’t a stationary target.
“We’ve spent some money trying to get it where it needs to be,” Howell said. “But we’ll never be there.”
That’s in part because new homes keep coming, in both South Bryan and in areas around Black Creek, for example, where officials say as soon as the concrete is poured for a foundation the home is sold.
Taylor said the county is averaging about 350 new housing permits a year for single family homes or apartments.
In the past six years, by contrast, there’ve only been eight commercial permits issued, he said.
“Other communities of our size may be building 50 homes year, 25 homes a year, that’s the norm,” Taylor said. “The need for services is going to go up. From the county aspect, we’re lucky we have the tax dollars to meet that demand. We haven’t had to raise taxes. But the budget is going to go up.”
The county is working toward implementing impact fees, which will help fund some of the infrastructure growth demands. But Bryan officials are still coming up with a formula to make sure that the fees are fair.
“It’s more than just saying everybody will pay $1,000 or whatever the fee is,” Taylor noted. “You have to know what the impact is on transportation, and on other infrastructure, and then determine what people should pay, and say this is their fair share.”
In the meantime, Bryan County’s response times and its ISO ratings are better than average, officials say, though they note that private water systems add a challenging dimension because at least some don’t have the requisite water pressure called for under ISO guidelines.
“Forty percent of an ISO score is water,” Howell said. “Every water system in the county has to put out either 250, or 500 gallons per minute for 2-1/2 hours. The county’s water systems can, but some of these private systems can’t.”
Adding both specialized pumps and 3,000 gallon tanker trucks, which Bryan county is doing, will help in that regard, Howell said.
There are other challenges beyond personnel and equipment.
While ambulances can reach a Savannah hospital from either end of the county thanks to I-16 in North Bryan, both that interstate and, to a lesser extent I-95, generate a lot of first responder calls, Howell said.
In any case, once an ambulance is on a call, any call, it’s usually tied up for two hours.
“The rule is when we run a call, that ambulance is out those two hours, it’s gone,” Howell said. “They run the call, go to the hospital fighting traffic to get there, then fight traffic to get back.”
The majority of Bryan County EMS calls are from elderly residents.
That’s par for the course across the U.S., Howell added.
“The whole country is getting older and calling for ambulances more,” he said. “The majority of are calls are elderly people. They might not have a traumatic injury, it might be chest pains or a fall, but we don’t have an emergency room to take them too.”
Unless patients specify otherwise, most are taken to Memorial Medical Center or St. Joseph’s/Candler in Savannah, depending on circumstances. Sometimes,Howell said, they’ll be told one hospital is too full and sent to the other one.
If patients specify a hospital in Bulloch County, Effingham County, Liberty County or Glynn County, or on Fort Stewart, it’s still a lengthy trip.
“In Glynn, they can run those people to the hospital and be back in service for another call within about 30 minutes,’ Howell said. “We don’t have that luxury. When we respond to granny and she’s got a 200 degree fever, and whether she wants to go to Liberty or Statesboro or Savannah, there are no ifs, ands or buts, there’s just no easy way to get them there.”
Taylor said there are those who question the need for spending on such services.
“It’s not about dollars and cents,” he said. “It’s about fire protection.”
That, and the growth.
“You’ve got to have nice things to attract people,” Taylor added.