The proposal to provide better fire and ambulance service across a swath of northern Umatilla County is close to becoming reality.
The boards for the East Umatilla County Rural Fire Protection District, Athena Volunteer Fire Department and the East Umatilla County Ambulance Area Health District have approved plans to band together as the new East Umatilla Fire and Rescue. The Helix Rural Fire District board has yet to vote to join, but that’s likely coming when it meets Tuesday.
Dave Baty, East Umatilla County fire chief, will step into the role of chief of the new authority. He explained Oregon law allows the districts to band together under intergovernmental agreements. Baty said the proposal will result in better coverage and emergency response for almost 440 square miles in northern Umatilla County, from near Holdman on the west side to the Blue Mountain on the east. An eight-person board of two representatives each from the Athena City Council, Helix fire, East Umatilla fire and the ambulance district would oversee the authority.
“An IGA is the most non-invasive way we can present this idea of joining forces, so to speak,” Baty said. “This basically puts everybody under the same roof.”
Getting the four emergency districts to this point took overcoming some shared history, he said, and not all of it good. Some cases required acknowledgment of past wrongs while others needed the willingness to move on and try harder.
“What’s really nice is everybody is cooperating, everybody is here,” he said, “and we’re just trying to provide good public service.”
The four districts often respond to the same fires, vehicle crashes and more. The agreement reduces response times, Baty said. Fire district personnel now have to wait until a minimum crew of three shows up and the station, but the proposal allows personnel instead to leave right from their homes to get to the emergency. And East Umatilla Fire and Rescue will have two staff on duty to respond to fires and other calls for help.
The deal also allows the agencies to share resources, which would make paying for the cost of vehicle repairs or capital improvements easier to afford. Given how often they have mutual responses, Helix, for example, getting a new engine in its fire truck would benefit East Umatilla, and vice versa.
The formation of the new fire authority does not reinvent the wheel. Baty said this is akin to what happened in Hermiston with the creation of Umatilla County Fire District No. 1. But this plan does not need voter approval nor is it changing what anyone pays in taxes.
Baty and other fire staff have held public meetings about the effort. The second-to-last was Friday night at the Medic 400 headquarters in Athena. Klaus and Mary Hoehna of Weston were the among the few non-fire district personnel to attend. Klaus Hoehna serves on the Local Emergency Planning Committee and said he supports the four agencies teaming up.
“I like the idea of quick response,” he said. “That’s a big selling point for me.”
He and Mary Hoehna also agreed locals like to see public agencies cooperate and find smart ways to use public money.
Baty said some of the meetings have had good participation, and the one criticism he heard was why this has not happened sooner.
“I really didn’t have an answer for that,” he said.
Pending the approval from Helix, East Umatilla Fire and Rescue would go into effect July 1. The last public meeting takes place June 10 at 7 p.m. at the East Umatilla County Rural Fire Protection District office, 103 W. Main St.
Baty said if someone has a good reason not to go forward, they should present that. Getting this far has taken considerable effort, he said, and if residents don’t want it, the four districts need to know.