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'A different world'

More than six decades after Mercy Flights founder George Milligan rallied community support to purchase a surplus military plane for use as the region's first air ambulance, the nonprofit medical transport service is set to unveil a $4.6 million facility.

Undersized hangars, hand washing of vehicles and gravel parking lots have made way for a push-button wash rack for ambulances, high-tech security palm scanners and expanded dispatch and training space.

Funded with a $3.9 million grant from Connect Oregon III, awarded last fall, the project began this spring with S&B James Construction serving as general contractor.

General Manager Ken Parsons said mechanics and crews were "chomping at the bit" last week to move into new facilities.

"The hangars we were in previously were actually built in the mid-to-early 1940s and they weren't really holding our aircraft anymore," he said.

"We actually had to tip the helicopter down a bit to get the tail rotor to come into the hangar. The wings only had a foot on each side and we had our ground ambulances crowded into the same space, too."

All told, the new center is 5,000 square feet larger than the facilities they were built to replace.

In perhaps the biggest improvement, a trio of too-small, aging hangars were traded for a new, four-bay structure boasting 10,885 square feet of hangar space and 3,675 square feet of shop space for working on ground and air ambulances.

Next door, a new operations building includes 4,623 square feet for technology services, dispatch headquarters, training facilities and shower and locker space for crews.

Biometric scanners and improved security were included in the new space and were added to the existing administration building.

Parsons points out that the scanners are so high tech that blood flow is required to gain access, "so you can't chop off someone's arm and use it."

The security upgrade, which included parking area cameras and added fencing, is needed to keep up with increased demand for precautions in an era far different from when Mercy Flights began.

"One of the things we're constantly aware of is that that ambulances are often used as weapons, for terrorists, because they can drive everywhere and are big vans so can carry a lot of weight," Parsons said. "Security is a really big deal nowadays."

"It's a different world from when they first started in the 1940s."

Cathy Parsons, Mercy Flights chief financial officer, said improvements were much needed with increased security demands and for a company that has grown, since she began in 1985, from three employees to more than 100.

Parsons said Mercy Flights was fortunate for ongoing community support and to have secured grant funding.

"It's bittersweet to see the end of one era, in some ways, but it's exciting to see us moving into a new era with all the changes," she said.

Longtime mechanic Con Singley, who last week was working on an ambulance in a small hangar, converted from an old lumber building, said it was time for a new facility

Working while crammed in between toolboxes, a forklift, an ambulance and a plane, Singley said Mercy Flights had more than outgrown its old space.

"You make do with what you've got for as long as you can," he said.

"The new place is going to be different, kind of a culture shock. But it's pretty impressive."

The Connect Oregon III funding was a godsend, Parsons said. The grant money was part of a $100 million lottery-backed bond package approved by the Oregon Legislature in 2009 to improve transportation connections, especially in rural areas. In all, 40 projects were funded.

Before receiving the grant, Parsons said, the ambulance service knew it had to have new hangar space, but also knew the cost would be difficult to cover.

"We were getting forced into having to build a hangar on our own, which even a small hangar to fit one of our aircraft would have cost a million dollars," he said.

"So what we figured the hangar would have cost was our whole share of the project."

Parsons acknowledged the irony of completing such a massive project during tight financial times.

"It's definitely a bad financial time in the medical industry," he said.

"Mercy Flights has had losses for three years in a row, so it's a bad time to do anything. But with a grant offering 80 percent of the money on something like this, you can't not do it."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffyp76@yahoo.com

Con Singley, a longtime mechanic with Mercy Flights, has worked for years in a space jammed with equipment and ambulances and says the service’s new $4.6 million facility is a much-needed improvement. - Julia Moore