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Family tradition continues

Heckathorn follows brother to top spot

by: Photo By Holly M. Gill - New ambulance chief Don Heckathorn


   Following in his brother's footsteps and preserving a family tradition, Don Heckathorn, 58, has been named the new Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services chief.
   Selected unanimously by the JCEMS Board of Directors, Heckathorn replaces George Heckathorn, his younger brother, who stepped down in November for medical reasons.
   Board President John Curnutt noted that the board determined early in the process that there were qualified candidates for the job inside the organization, and as a result, did not seek outside applicants.
   At a special meeting March 27, with four of the five board members present, Heckathorn was chosen. "He seems to have a strong following with the members," Curnut explained. "They have a lot of confidence in him."
   The board agreed with that support. "He's a good, solid pick," said Curnutt.
   Paramedic Mike Lepin, who had shared the managing job with Heckathorn since November, was named assistant chief and official spokesman for the district.
   Heckathorn is part of a family with three generations of committed volunteers, starting with his father, Robert Heckathorn.
   "It's my dad's fault," said Heckathorn, recalling how he originally became interested in volunteering at the ambulance station. "He was the shift foreman at Warm Springs Forest Products and they sent him up to Madras to take first-aid classes. He became a volunteer firefighter/EMT."
   Robert Heckathorn, who died last year, was followed into the business by his three sons: Larry, Don and George. Grandchildren, including Don's two sons, Rex, who work for North Unit Irrigation District, and Marc, a sergeant with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, also volunteered.
   Born in Nampa, Idaho, Heckathorn moved to Madras with his family in 1962, when he was in junior high. After high school, he attended Central Oregon Community College, where he earned an automotive technology certificate, which "does come in handy" nowadays when an ambulance needs work.
   Like his father, Heckathorn worked at Warm Springs Forest Products and volunteered with the Madras ambulance and fire department, which later merged with Jefferson County's fire department.
   In 1980, Heckathorn went to work for Metro West Ambulance, in Hillsboro, and was able to get training to become a paramedic, along with his brother George.
   "There was no advanced training in Central Oregon at the time," said Heckathorn, who took classes at Portland Community College.
   While Don Heckathorn remained at Metro West, George returned to Madras in 1986, eventually becoming the chief. After nine years in Portland, Don and his wife, Robin, came back to Madras in 1989, and he was soon hired as the assistant chief when George was named chief.
   The ambulance district covers all of Jefferson County, in addition to the Shaniko area in Wasco County, the John Day River/Clarno area, and the Green Ridge area.
   With an annual budget of about $680,000, JCEMS had about 1,400 calls last year, and about 1,100 patient transports.
   Including Heckathorn and Lepin, there are four paramedics, an EMT intermediate, and a secretary -- George's wife Sandi -- on the full-time payroll. A student taking paramedic classes at COCC, 10 part-time employees, and 18 active volunteers round out the district's roster.
   Last month, there were just over 700 families signed up as members, paying $50 annually to ensure full coverage in the event that a family member needs ambulance service during the year.
   "There's a lot to learn, a lot to do," Heckathorn said, noting that the manager "oversees everything -- bookkeeping, payroll, maintenance, running calls, making sure everything's running the way it's supposed to."
   Fortunately, his brother continues to volunteer for a couple hours nearly every day. "He's helping me on the beginning of the month stuff -- payroll, taxes," Heckathorn said.
   In his 17 years on the job, Heckathorn has learned to take the good with the bad. "The worst part of it is the little kids, who, through no fault of their own, are killed or severely injured in an accident," he said.
   The best part of his job? "Saving somebody's life," he said.
   Several years ago, Heckathorn recalls being called to Madras High School, where an employee had ended up in cardiac arrest during a fun day at the end of the school year.
   "We got her back," said Heckathorn, with satisfaction. "I still see her around."