Wally Whitaker, Todd Hesse and Sam Chamberlain, three EMTs with Vale Fire and Ambulance, stand in front of one of the station’s ambulances. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

VALE – Vale Fire and Ambulance is adding a new paid medic to help alleviate strain on its ambulance staff, which is primarily made up of volunteers.

While the Vale City Council approved funding for the new position, the service could use more volunteer help from the community. 

Todd Hesse, ambulance supervisor at Vale Fire and Ambulance, reported staffing issues at a recent city council meeting, and requested money to hire a paid part-time emergency medical technician to work 11 hours a week to help plug staffing holes. 

The budget had only allowed for one full-time and one 19-hour employee, with the rest of the EMTs and ambulance drivers volunteering their time.  

Vale Fire is interviewing for the new position and Hesse said he has promising candidates. 

As of November, Vale Fire responded to 480 calls year to date, closing in on the 500 to 525 calls Hesse estimated it would hit by the end of 2019. 

Despite the new medic position, as well as two new ambulance drivers now online and a third expected to be online at the end of the month, Hesse made it clear the agency still needs volunteers.  

Volunteers will receive free training and while the greatest need is for medics and ambulance drivers, other jobs need volunteers too.

Sam Chamberlain and Wally Whitaker are two fixtures at Vale Fire, and they said that while the job is difficult, it is ultimately worth it. 

Chamberlain and Whitaker each have been serving for about 11 years in a service that covers 2,500 square miles and extends out to Ironside and Juntura.

“There is a lot of good in the job, but it’s got to be the right type of person,” said Chamberlain, who is currently a part-time employee at Vale Fire. “It has to be the right fit, EMS, Fire Emergency Services, is not for everybody, but when it is for you, it’s in your blood and you can’t get it out.” 

Chamberlain said that the crew could use four or five more people to help. Now, if anyone gets injured or sick, the service has few people in reserve to step up and help get the ambulance out the door, Chamberlain said. 

Whitaker, who lives between Ontario and Weiser, sleeps at the station four nights a week, either on the floor or on a cot plucked from one of the ambulances. 

This way he can be at the station and ready to go when a call comes in. 

“You kind of have to have a warped sense of humor too,” Whitaker said of working as a volunteer EMT. 

Camaraderie is what keeps Whitaker around the station, he said.  

“You get more family than you knew you had,” he said. 

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While Whitaker is not a Vale local, his children go to school in Vale, and he also works at Mal’s Diner. 

Hesse said that lately, the agency was doing well in recruiting, but there are still shifts that need bodies. 

“Our community or any other small community absolutely depends on volunteers to help provide services,” Hesse said. “Whether it’s the Elks Lodge or the Lions Club or the volunteer fire and ambulance department, we all need volunteers.” 

Hesse, who began his career in the fire and ambulance service in 1986 at a rural department west of Portland, said that he and Chamberlain are covering most of the shifts. 

“We are always looking for motivated people that are looking to serve their community, who like a little bit of a challenge. We offer the training and schooling needed to be a driver or an EMT,” Hesse said. 

Vale Fire has a $2,500 grant from the Oregon Office of Rural Health to fund an EMT class that will begin Wednesday, Jan. 8, Hesse said. The class is currently full. 

Hesse said that the grant paid for textbooks and for testing and he will be donating his time to teach the class at the station in Vale. 

The opportunity to serve, however, requires a thick skin. 

Chamberlain said that from her perspective, while Vale Fire would never let a call go unanswered, the small core of dedicated employees and volunteers simply need help. 

“One of us is going to show up, always. But we need help,” Chamberlain said. “We are running pretty much full steam all the time, and we need help.” 

The mental part of the job can be taxing, Whitaker said. 

“I think all of us have figured out a coping mechanism,” Chamberlain said. “There have been times when I absolutely can’t do this anymore.” 

Chamberlain, who has young children, said that the urge to quit her job at Vale Fire typically creeps up on her when she gets calls involving children. 

“It’s hard for me, as a mom, to go from mom mode to EMT mode, when it’s a child,” Chamberlain said. “You almost can’t have feelings in that moment. You have to wait until you get home to have feelings.”

“I hug my kids a lot when I go home,” Chamberlain said. 

Hesse said that the new part-time medic position is based on pay that starts when an emergency call comes in and the medic responds.

“We average 1.8 calls a day. If you do the math you say ‘ok so each call takes two hours, in four shifts, you should get your 11 hours in,” Hesse said. 

However, Hesse said, some days there will be 15 hours of calls and some weeks no calls at all. 

“You can go five days without getting a call and then four right on top of each other,” Hesse said. “It always fluctuates.” 

There are 14 12-hour medic and ambulance driver shifts each week, and most are covered by volunteers, Hesse said. At least two people are on duty at all hours, Hesse said.

Hesse added that not only is Vale Fire responsible for medical calls, fires, or the occasional cat getting stuck in the tree, its crews also stand by at local community events like football games and rodeos.

They also go to area schools and provide public education, teaching children about safety, ambulances and fires. 

“We are not just responding to 911 calls. We do way more than that,” Hesse said. “We’d like to expand what we do but we are limited by the amount of people we have. They work very hard.”    

Chamberlain and Whitaker joked that they’d tell anyone planning to volunteer to run.

Chamberlain said that while volunteering may be challenging, it is worth it when people express gratitude.

“Or you see the little kids in the grocery store and they say ‘oh you were in my class, you taught my safety class, or you helped my brother or you helped my mom, you helped my dad.’ It’s worth it,” Chamberlain said. 

“Every day I’m thankful for being able to do this job, and it will help me help this community to have volunteers,” Chamberlain added.  

Besides Whitaker, other volunteers sleep at the station to ensure they meet the goal for responding, which is 4 ½ minutes, Hesse said. 

“If you are asleep at three in the morning, you are expected to be sleeping in bed at your house, and here and out the door in under five. That’s pretty amazing,” Hesse said grinning. 

“I can be here by the time the pager goes off, to here, is about three minutes, from asleep… You get used to it over time. But that’s what we do.” 

News tip? Contact reporter Joe Siess: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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