Amanda Weisbrod

Elgin City Council members and volunteers for the Elgin Rural Fire Protection District are preparing to purchase a new ambulance and recruiting community members to join the team.

Kevin Silvernail, ERFPD fire chief, said Elgin’s current ambulance was purchased brand-new in 2008, meaning its lifespan is almost at its end.

“We’ve done a good job of keeping the ambulance maintained, but we’re looking for a new one for safety reasons,” he said. “There’s no specific, mandatory date out there, but 10 years is a guideline.”

Elgin Mayor Allan Duffy said the city council is currently researching possible grant funding avenues with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other organizations in order to pay for a new ambulance, which he estimates would cost about $250,000.

“We’re looking at all sorts of grants. It’s just a matter of searching for who has grants that fit our needs,” he said. “Funding wise, there’s not necessarily a timeline, but we’re looking at purchasing (the ambulance) after the end of the budget year.”

Duffy said the city’s budget year ends in July, so he and the council are expecting to have the new ambulance in town by late summer or early fall. The mayor stressed the importance of the rural city having its own functioning emergency equipment because the nearest ambulance other than Elgin’s is in La Grande, which would add at least 20 minutes to every call response time.

“Having your own local ambulance is a part of public safety. We’re providing a safety measure for our community,” he said. “Folks out there, when they’re in need, they’re relying on us, so we have to have good equipment that’s running. You don’t want your ambulance breaking down. We’re getting to a point where it needs to be replaced soon before we run into issues. We’re trying to be proactive in realizing the life of our equipment.”

Along with having a reliable ambulance, Duffy and Silvernail both spoke on how vital it is to have enough volunteers to run the emergency vehicle and respond to calls all over the area, but especially across Elgin’s fire protection district, which Silvernail described as “the top of Minam grade, then out north seven miles, then out to 204, then south to the top of Hamburger Hill.”

The mayor said the fire district follows the same boundary lines as the Elgin School District.

Silvernail said Elgin’s emergency services have 12 volunteers in total, 10 of whom are responders for both the fire department and the ambulance. Back in 1991 or ’92 when Silvernail began volunteering for the fire department, however, the city had 18-20 emergency service volunteers. He said the current volunteer maximum is 23 people, and he’d like to get as close to that number as possible.

“It’d be wonderful if we had that many,” Silvernail said. “We definitely need volunteers for both the fire department and the ambulance. A lot of volunteers have a role with both because they go hand-in-hand — the fire department uses the ambulance, the ambulance uses the fire department. We train together really well.”

As for the decline in numbers over the last two decades, the fire chief theorizes it has to do with a lack of enthusiasm for community service across the board.

“I think volunteerism, overall, not just for fire department, has gone down in general. A lot of the younger kids aren’t into it,” he said. “People also don’t have the time for the dedication we need. Training requirements have gone up over the years, and (the necessary time commitment) deters people.”

Firefighter and EMT training fees are covered by the City of Elgin at no cost to interested volunteers. To become a firefighter volunteer, one must train at Firefighter Academy sessions for four weekends, complete task performance at the fire station, then apply for certification through the state, according to Silvernail.

EMT training is a little more involved, the fire chief said. It requires passing five credits of college level EMT classes over two terms and then passing state tests to earn the certification. Because EMT certifications are valid nationally, Silverton has one stipulation for those who complete it.

“Both trainings are paid for, but for ambulance training, if they move within a year, they have to pay the city (back),” Silvernail said. “With that kind of investment, we’d like some return to the community.”

While there is no requirement for the number of calls a firefighter and/or EMT volunteer must respond to, meetings and trainings are mandatory. The ambulance crew meets on the first and third Sundays each month for two hours at the fire station, while the fire department offers training sessions every Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the fire station.

Mayor Duffy said he is eager to answer any questions community members have about volunteering with the fire department and ambulance.

“Public service is a noble thing. I think there are folks out there who may be interested and we’re just encouraging people to come check it out,” he said. “In a rural community like ours where funding is very limited, we don’t have the money to pay for full-time ambulance service — we count on volunteers.”

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer