Todd Hesse, Vale Fire and Ambulance supervisor, accepts the Public Servant of the Year award from Jessica Kulm, Vale Chamber of Commerce president. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez).

VALE – For Todd Hesse, it’s not about winning, it’s about helping.

That’s the spirit that led the Vale Chamber of Commerce to honor Hesse, a longtime leader of Vale’s fire agency, its Public Servant of the Year Award last month.

Hesse joked that he and his team of “grizzled veterans” do their part “for the money and the fame.” 

 “If you like being sleep deprived, and to not eat meals on time and miss family events, this is the job for you,” he said with a grin.

 “There is glory,” he added, as a more serious tone emerged. 

 “They always say, if you look at the movies, it’s always like charging in saving babies and all this stuff, and it’s nothing like that,” he said. “It’s meat and potatoes, and it’s emotionally challenging and it’s public service, but it is an absolute privilege to be able to do it.” 

Hesse started his career in the fire and ambulance service in 1986 at Washington County Fire District 2, a rural department outside of Portland that his grandfather helped found in the 1950s and where he served as chief. 

Later, Hesse’s father took over as chief of the department, and his family also ran a farm in the area.

In 1995, the family moved the farm operation west of Vale, and Hesse joined the fire and ambulance service once again in 2001. His tenure included eight years at the helm, and he’s been the ambulance supervisor for the past four years. Hesse said giving back to the community is in his blood, noting that his father and grandfather each put in more than 40 years in the service.

His main goal, he said, is to honor his father and grandfather’s legacy and “get at least 40 years” before retiring.

Hesse’s motivation, aside from his family history, is a desire to help people.

“I kind of got that in my brain and my heart and my soul. It’s in my blood to help,” he said.

Hesse hopes to instill similar values in his two boys, but said it’s ultimately up to them to decide if they want to follow the same path.

As the ambulance supervisor, Hesse primarily focuses on the medical side of things now, but he knows well the firefighting side. The technological advances there “are amazing,” he said.

 “I always tell people, fire still burns the same. However, our suppression tactics and how we look at fire has changed from a safety standpoint. The new technology or the bigger hoses, the better water supplies and the bigger pumps… better protective gear. All those have changed dramatically since I started,” Hesse said.

Hesse said one of the greatest obstacles for someone in his position “is trying to get enough people interested and devoted enough to give back to their community.”

The station has one part-time emergency medical technician on site and two ambulance volunteers on call 24 hours a day. In all, the medical roster has 18 people listed as “paid on call,” meaning they volunteer to be ready to go as needed, getting paid only when they go to a call.

It’s demanding, fast-paced work, Hesse said.

“Most people, especially those working on the medical side of things, don’t last more than five years,” he said. “It’s about getting people in here with the same passion. You have to have a mental toughness and fortitude to be able to stick with it.”

“The biggest challenge is getting people,” Hesse added. “I am very blessed to have some wonderful staff, a wonderful core group right now, of staff. But it’s always a challenge to get enough people in there.” 

Hesse’s wife, Mikael, works full time at Malheur Federal Credit Union in Vale and is an EMT-firefighter on her time off. Some nights, both of them are on call.

 “So, we respond and leave the kids with a babysitter at home or grandma comes down and watches the kids or whatever so we can run on an ambulance together,” Hesse said. 

A big challenge for volunteers in the fire and ambulance service, Hesse said, is processing some of the things they see in the line of duty so they can keep doing the job.

 “It also stirs emotions in us that we don’t want to dig up.”

However, for him, “the passion is still there,” he said.

 “You know, another 10 years we might have this conversation. I might be going, you know what? Retirement is not looking too bad,” he said with a laugh.

News tip? Reporter Joe Siess: joesiess.malheurenterprise@gmail.com or 541-473-3377.

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