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Ambulance service shuts down in Oregon

Neighboring fire departments will help for now

OREGON – Citing economic hardship, the privately owned Oregon Ambulance Service has closed, leaving fire and city officials scrambling to provide service for the residents of the Oregon Fire District.

Oregon Fire Chief Don Heller said Betty Ferris, who manages the nonprofit business with her husband, Jim, told fire protection district’s board of trustees on June 11 that they would close their doors Tuesday.

Heller immediately began contacting other area fire districts, which have agreed to help handle ambulance calls for the time being.

The Oregon Fire District includes all of Oregon-Nashua Township and portions of Pine Creek, Pine, Rock, White Rock, Rockvale, Marion, Grand Detour, and Taylor townships.

It has been divided up in segments, with each neighboring fire department covering the area closest to it, Heller said. Mount Morris and Byron will handle calls within the city of Oregon.

The Polo Fire Protection District will cover the southwest portion of Oregon’s district.

The other neighboring fire districts are Leaf River, Stillman Valley, Ogle-Lee, Lynn-Scott-Rock, Dixon Rural, Franklin Grove, and Ashton.

Ogle County 911 will dispatch the fire departments according to where the ambulance is needed, he said.

Sandra Beitel, 911 coordinator, declined to comment except to say a plan was in place.

Oregon is the only fire department in the area without an ambulance service funded by property taxes.

“The reason we are closing is financial, because people aren’t paying their bills,” Ferris said Monday. “It’s because of lack of financial support and the economic times. We don’t get tax dollars. We are only supported by ambulance fees, memorials, and donations. Anyone is welcome to stop in later in the week and talk to me.”

The ambulance service, officially formed in 1971, is a nonprofit corporation owned by stockholders. It has been tax-free throughout its 4 decades of existence, she said. “[It’s a] pretty good deal for Oregon residents.”

Oregon Police Chief Darin DeHaan said Ferris told him about the impending closure Friday. He and Mayor Tom Stone met with Heller and other fire district officials to come up with a permanent solution and explore ways the city can help in the meantime.

“We need to find a solution as soon as we can,” DeHaan said. “We can’t rely on mutual aid long term.”

The fire district could add an ambulance service, but that requires voter approval allowing the fire district to tax to pay for it, Heller said. “State law does not allow us to use fire department funds to run an ambulance service,” he said.

A referendum could be put on the November ballot, but if approved, the earliest money would be available is a year from now.

Earlier this year, Heller said the cost of an ambulance service to taxpayers would be about 40 cents per $100 of equalized assessed valuation, or about $200 a year for the owner of $150,000 home.

The Oregon Ambulance Service is licensed through the Rockford Memorial Hospital Emergency Medical Services.

Anthony Cellitti, EMS system coordinator, said Tuesday that he had been told the service was shutting down.

“We’re checking into that,” he said. “We’re working with the Oregon Fire Department. I can’t comment much beyond that.”

Under state law, paramedics and emergency medical technicians must be certified by the state but aren’t licensed to perform medical procedures, and so must practice under the license of a physician. All ambulance services, therefore, are affiliated with a hospital’s EMS.

Oregon is one of very few communities without a tax-supported ambulance service, Cellitti said.

“Oregon has had a great 40 years,” he said. “They haven’t had to pay for ambulance service.”

Ferris is not required to follow any legal procedures for informing officials or the community that it is closing, because it has no contractual agreement to provide the service, Cellitti said.

“Tax-supported ambulance services have a contractual agreement with the taxpayers,” Cellitti said. “Oregon has no contractual agreement with the Oregon Ambulance Service. It’s just like any other business.”

Several times over the years, Oregon Fire Protection District officials have considered establishing an ambulance service. Delayed response times in the last year prompted Oregon fire officials to again consider the move.

Several firefighters are already first responders or EMTs.

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