James Thalman

James Thalman

ACE Achievers

By James Thalman

ATLANTA—The New South envisioned by Henry W. Grady more than a century ago didn’t include Atlanta’s main emergency medical services agency becoming an Accredited Center of Excellence (ACE) in 2012, but the 19th-century newspaper editor and public health visionary certainly would have expected it.

Grady Emergency Medical Services being named the third ACE in Georgia and the 165th worldwide would have fit nicely into his big picture of post-Reconstruction Era in which all could prosper, and where all, particularly the poor and destitute, would have access to excellent healthcare.

The roots of excellence in the Grady Healthcare System starts with Grady, who 121 years ago helped develop a system of care the public taps into every day. Grady EMS responded to more than 120,000 9-1-1 calls in 2011, dispatching its fleet of 46 ambulances deployed by a communications center staff of 40 dispatchers.

“Not bad,” Grady Communications Director Cliveita Caesar told The Journal. “To us, it’s very much a source of pride. It says that we’re the best of the best when it comes to Emergency Medical Dispatching™ in Atlanta, and we’re not just saying so, the NAED says so.”

The effort to become an ACE was “well worth it,” Caesar said, noting that the center had been consistently scoring far below acceptable levels in how well dispatchers followed the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS) Protocol.

“Within eight months, we were in the 90th percentile and we’re working hard to maintain that,” she said, adding, “it’s not about the score, it’s about what the score means in how well we’re serving the public.”

Grady EMS covers 132 square miles in the central zone of Fulton County and responds to calls in all areas within the City of Atlanta and Fulton County as the primary 9-1-1 ambulance provider. Caesar has had 18 months on the job, although she has 13 years of experience in police dispatching in Atlanta.

“I’m so glad to be in medical dispatching because every call is different,” Caesar said, noting that police calls are just as much a part of maintaining public safety as medical emergencies. “But every call is unique in EMD, and I learn something new every day. It’s very rewarding work because I know we’re making a difference, and I know the next call could very well be helping save someone’s life.”

She and other staffers, both in the call center and the paramedics responding to the scene, like to say the medical calls run the gamut of seriousness, giving dispatchers an array of situations in a single year that dispatchers in other parts of the country won’t see in 10.

That’s a systemic trait of Grady EMS. It was providing top-flight emergency services seven years before the Wright Brothers took flight. Henry Grady started the country’s first citywide ambulance service in 1896. The vehicles he designed were literally one- and two-horsepower medical supply-loaded buggies that became the forerunners for today’s fleet of ambulances stationed all over Atlanta, which cut response time to a bare minimum.

Deploying the vehicles throughout the coverage area also permits Grady to continue its method of response: As soon as the address is taken on a 9-1-1 call, an ambulance is on its way as a result of the use of status system management. If the call is downgraded or the emergency is deemed noncritical, the vehicle stands down and returns to its original point or is sent to another location perhaps to cover a large event or go to a part of town that seems to be generating increased emergency call traffic.

Betsy Cobb, quality assurance and improvement director for Grady, said the so-called “Grady Way” is to go above and beyond. In the case of the ACE, that was achieving higher standards than the “Twenty Points of Excellence” ACE award from the NAED signifies. In addition to requiring proper system oversight, medical control, and quality management programs, accreditation requires careful MPDS compliance and certification for all emergency calltakers and medical dispatchers. And, it’s achieved just because a center wants the designation—it’s voluntary, not required.

When the award was announced, Bill Compton, Grady Health System vice president of Operations/EMS, said, “As Atlanta’s 9-1-1 emergency ambulance service, Grady EMS works to meet the highest quality standards at every level. [The ACE designation] confirms that we have developed a system that provides the highest quality medical response to the citizens of Atlanta when they need emergency care.”

Grady EMS seems to have “new and improved” ingrained in daily life. It has been through a series of software upgrades, including adopting version 12.2 of the MPDS. Grady also has a new training lab to perform hands-on training for dispatchers ranging from first-day to veteran. The lab is equipped with TriTech’s CAD system, ProQA, and a phone system to simulate real-life emergencies in real time. It also just made the ultimate hardware improvement by moving to a new communications center.

“So, yes, there have been a lot of changes we’re dealing with, but they’re positive and all based on always finding ways to do what we do better,” Caesar said.

Next up?

“Who knows, but it will be about expansion,” she said. “We just want to see our service expanded outside Atlanta itself. I think we’re at that caliber now and can expand into nearby counties.”

The ACE designation comes in the wake of Dr. Arthur Yancey II, Grady Emergency Medical Services medical director, being named EMS Medical Director of the Year by the Georgia Association of Emergency Medical Services and Georgia EMS Region III. Dr. Yancey is also the recipient of the 2007 Dr. Jeff Clawson Leadership Award from the International Academies of Emergency DispatchR. The award singles out exceptional leadership in the field of the trilogy of police, fire, and medical emergency dispatching combined.

In memoriam

An article about emergency communications in Atlanta wouldn’t be complete without mentioning an event that Grady personnel could do nothing to prevent but are still talking about—the death of dispatching supervisor Nikita Thomas.

A year ago September, Thomas, age 34 and a nine-year veteran dispatcher, was killed after someone attempted to steal the car at gunpoint that she, her fiance, and her 13-year-old son were riding in. Thomas, a police dispatcher for the city of Atlanta, and her family were returning home after an evening out when an unknown masked gunman approached their vehicle and began shooting. Her wounded fiance got out of the car and died shortly after the car began rolling and collided with an oncoming city bus. Thomas was killed on impact. Her son, riding in the back, was seriously injured, but has since recovered.

Caesar said the region’s public safety agencies have raised money to help with the child’s hospital bills, which are considerable.

“The loss is still felt, not just because she was one of ‘us,’ but because she had a ready and warm smile, and a warmer spirit,” she said. “She was just a good person, and it’s left a big hole in our community.”

At the time of publication, police were offering a $5,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the assailant. If you have any information, call Crime Stoppers at 404-577-8477.

A 9-1-1 Cares response is still active. Anyone wanting to find out more can contact Gwen Favors, Atlanta 9-1-1 assistant director. E-mails can also be sent to and to Angelia Jennings at

The center’s mailing address (for cards and letters) is: 180 Peachtree Street NE, Suite 500, Atlanta, GA 30303.