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A familiar face, who has worked for the district for nearly 20 years, takes over as chief of the ambulance district.

HOLLY M. GILL - New JCEMS Chief Mike Lepin has a display case of old medicine and medical equipment, some of which was owned by his mother and grandmother, both nurses.
Beginning this month, Mike Lepin, formerly the assistant chief of Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services, assumed the duties of chief of the ambulance district.

Lepin was named chief by the JCEMS District Board of Directors after Liz Heckathorn, who had served in that position since the 2013 death of the former chief, her husband, Don Heckathorn, took another position. Liz Heckathorn has accepted a position with the Oregon Department of Justice, managing the Medicaid Fraud Unit.

"She wanted to leave earlier in the month, but the board of directors asked her to stay, so she stayed until the end of September," Lepin explained.

"The board of directors was unanimously in favor of the transition to Mike," said John Curnutt, board chairman. "He's an excellent paramedic, he serves on several regional and statewide boards, and over time, he's demonstrated leadership."

"He maintains good relationships with local and regional emergency services agencies," Curnutt added. "He's a very loyal guy."

Lepin, 51, the assistant chief since 2007, has a long history with the department, dating back to August 1989, when he moved to Madras, where his mother, Kris Osterbaan, lives. While working as a phlebotomist at Central Oregon District Hospital in Redmond (now St. Charles Redmond), Lepin began volunteering at JCEMS.

In January 1990, he was hired as a full-time advanced emergency medical technician at JCEMS.

While employed at JCEMS, Lepin continued taking classes at Central Oregon Community College and earned his paramedic certification in 1991. In October 1994, after he had become the district's training officer, he took a position with Metro West Ambulance, in Hillsboro, and its sister company, Pacific West Ambulance, in Newport, where he was a senior paramedic.

In 1999, he left Metro West for Seattle, where he worked in the emergency room at Swedish Medical Center, as a paramedic for Rural Metro, in Tacoma, and for the Auburn Regional Medical Center, where he was a lead instructor for advanced cardiac life support.

Lepin returned to Madras in 2002, as the training officer, a position he retained until former chief George Heckathorn retired in 2007, and his brother, Don Heckathorn, became chief, and Lepin became assistant chief.

Before becoming the assistant chief, Lepin started attending classes again a COCC in 2005. For his junior year, 2009-10, he became a University of Oregon student at OSU-Cascades, which offered degrees from both universities at the time.

"I had a deal with Don," he said. "I worked two hours for every hour he worked for me."

For his senior year, Lepin was required to take classes on campus at UofO, in Eugene. "I drove over the mountain twice a week — Tuesdays and Thursdays, with labs on Friday mornings," he said, noting that after studying in the library until about midnight on Thursdays, he would park in the hospital parking garage and sleep in his Jeep to be ready for his Friday morning labs.

Recalling his senior year, Lepin said, "The hard part was when my classes started at 8 o'clock; I had to leave here at 4 in the morning."

In the fall of 2011, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in U.S. history.

Emphasizing partnerships

As the JCEMS chief, Lepin will emphasize strong partnerships with other agencies, including the Jefferson County Fire Department.

Regarding the possibility of a merger — which will be the subject of a feasibility study following a meeting between the two districts last month, Lepin said, "At the last meeting, we were all receptive to an outside consulting firm to come in and look at other options. We're open to other views."

"My department and the fire department get along really well; we do training together," he continued. "Brian (Huff) and I are out there for the common goal of serving our community."

In May, JCEMS sought a permanent tax base of $0.41 per $1,000 of assessed valuation from property taxes, but the levy failed by more than a 2-1 ratio. The district has never had a tax base, and is supported by user fees.

"We're sustainable," said Lepin. "Even without tax funding, we can maintain our services."

To improve service, the district has begun to keep a two-person crew at the station at all times. "We used to only stay at the building Monday through Friday, during business hours," he said. "What we've done in the past year is we have one crew on first out, which means they stay in the station, and one crew on standby, which means they can go home and go out, as long as they stay in the area. If the first out crew gets a call outside of town, the other crew comes in and mans the station," he said.

"What I'd like to foresee in the future is putting one of them out at the (fire) station in Culver; we're not quite there yet," said Lepin. "If we had extra funding, I'd be able to put them out there, and also have a third out crew on standby."

One of the district's biggest challenges for the district is retaining new recruits. "Much like the fire department experiences, we get younger people and we train them up, and then they move on to bigger places that pay better and have more excitement," he said. "That's what I did in 1999, but I came back because I wanted to be closer to my son. The people we have here are invested here; they have family here and have interest or roots here."

Enters military after school

Lepin grew up in Las Vegas, where he graduated from Rancho High School in 1984. Right after high school, he entered the U.S. Marines, serving from 1984-87, stationed at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California.

"When I left active service into the reserves, I decided my interest was medical, so I lateraled to the Naval Reserve and became a corpsman for a Marine infantry unit," he said. "The unit deployed to Desert Storm a month after I got out."

While still serving, he earned his emergency medical technician certification, and worked in the emergency room at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas.

When he moved to Oregon in 1989, he transferred from a Marine infantry unit to a fleet hospital unit in Portland, which he described at "the Navy version of a MASH (mobile Army surgical hospital) unit." He served one weekend a month at the unit, on Sauvie Island.

Lepin and his wife, April, have a son, Erik, 26, who is attending college in Idaho; a daughter, Kathleen, 30, who lives with her fiance in Alabama; and a stepdaughter, Brandy, 27, who lives in Bend, and has a son, Clayton, 1 1/2.

"My wife and I like to kayak and hike," said Lepin, who is also learning to play bagpipes in celebration of his Scottish heritage. An avid beer brewer, Lepin is a member of the Central Oregon Home Brewers Association.

In addition to having served on the Madras City Council and the Madras Planning Commission, Lepin has served as a reserve deputy for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office since 2002, but plans to take a six-month leave to focus on his duties as chief.

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