By Vinde Wells
The sudden closing of the privately-owned Oregon Ambulance Service, Inc., has local fire and city officials strategizing to provide service for residents of the Oregon Fire District.
Oregon Fire Chief Don Heller said he learned less than a week ago the the ambulance service would shut down early Tuesday morning.
He said Betty Ferris, who manages the service with her husband Jim, informed the fire protection district’s board of trustees at its June 11 meeting.
He said he immediately began contacting other area fire districts to enlist their assistance.
The ambulance service, officially formed in 1971, is a not-for-profit corporation owned by stockholders.
Heller said the fire district will rely on mutual aid from neighboring fire departments to handle ambulance calls for the time being.
“They all agreed to help,” Heller said Tuesday. “They’re going to help us out temporarily.”
The district, which is bordered by 10 other fire districts, includes all of Oregon-Nashua Township and portions of Pine Creek, Pine, Rock, White Rock, Rocvale, Marion, Grand Detour, and Taylor Townships.
He said the district has been divided up in segments with each neighboring fire department covering the area closest to it.
Mt. Morris and Byron have been designated to handle calls within the City of Oregon.
He said Ogle County 911 will dispatch the fire departments according to where the ambulance is needed.
911 Coordinator Sandra Beitel declined to comment except to say a plan was in place for handling Oregon calls.
Oregon is the only fire department in the area without an ambulance service funded by property taxes.
Ferris shed light Monday evening as to why the ambulance service is shutting down.
“The reason we are closing is financial because people aren’t paying their bills,” she said Monday night. “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.”
Ogle County records show that the ambulance service building, located at 101 Madison St., is mortgage-free.
Ferris said the ambulance service has been tax-free throughout its four decades of existence.
“[It’s] been a pretty good deal for Oregon residents,” she said.
Tuesday morning, she declined to comment further on the situation, saying she didn’t have time to address questions because she was taking her husband, who suffers from cancer, for chemotherapy.
Oregon Police Chief Darin DeHaan said Ferris informed him June 13 that the business would be closing at 6 a.m. Tuesday.
He said 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.”
Heller said one solution would be for the fire district to add an ambulance service.
Doing that, however, requires voter approval of a referendum allowing the fire district to tax for the ambulance service.
“State law does not allow us to use fire department funds to run an ambulance service,” Heller said.
The referendum could be on the November ballot.
If approved by taxpayers, the earliest that money from the referendum would be available to the fire district is a year from now.
Earlier this year Heller said the cost of an ambulance service to taxpayers would be approximately 40 cents per $100 of equalized assessed valuation.
That translates into an extra $200 per year in real estate taxes on a $150,000 home excluding exemptions.
The Oregon Ambulance Service is licensed through the Rockford Memorial Hospital Emergency Medical Services (EMS).
Anthony Cellitti, EMS System Coordinator, said Tuesday afternoon that he had been informed the ambulance 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.”
He said under state law, paramedics and emergency medical technicians must be certified by the state but aren’t licensed to perform medical procedures.
Consequently, he said, they must practice under the license of a physician. All ambulance services are therefore affiliated with a hospital’s EMS.
He said Oregon is one of very few communities without a tax-supported ambulance service.
“Oregon has had a great 40 years,” he said. “They haven’t had to pay for ambulance service.”
Cellitti said Ferris is not required to follow any legal procedures for informing officials or the community that the ambulance service is closing because it has no contractual agreement to provide the service.
“Tax-supported ambulance services have a contractual agreement with the taxpayers,” he said. “Oregon has no contractual agreement with the Oregon Ambulance Service. It’s just like any other business.”
Over the years, Oregon Fire Protection District officials have considered establishing an ambulance service several times.
Delayed response to ambulance calls in the last year prompted Oregon fire officials to again consider the move.
Heller said in February that in 2013 the fire department was called numerous times to respond when the Oregon Ambulance Service had no ambulance available or needed additional manpower.
Several firefighters are already First Responders or Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs).
“Last year we did 91 of those,” Heller said then. “Mt. Morris has come 50 times, and Byron has come several times, too.”
At that time, Ferris said the ambulance service was experiencing no problems.