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Mercy Flights miffed at Josephine commissioners

A recommendation by the Josephine County Board of Commissioners that the county's 911 agency create a protocol for dispatching rival air ambulances isn't sitting well with the chief of the Illinois Valley Fire District or with the chief executive officer of Mercy Flights.

Until recently, Medford-based Mercy Flights historically provided medical air transport for fire departments and hospitals in Josephine and Jackson counties.

That all changed in November, when a rival company called Oregon Lifeguard opened shop at the Grants Pass Airport in Merlin. In theory, other competitors could follow.

The board's recommendation, which was approved Thursday, requests that 911 dispatchers first call whichever air ambulance service is based closer to the scene of an incident.

"We want to make it perfectly clear and understandable that the fastest triage available ought to be used," Board Chairman Keith Heck said. "The safety and the health and the welfare of Josephine County patients should be based on who can provide the quickest service as long as everybody involved is qualified."

The board has no jurisdiction over the 911 agency and it's unclear how the organization will react. Calls to the agency's administrator were not immediately returned.

Illinois Valley Fire Chief Dennis Hoke, however, believes the agency shouldn't pay any attention to the Board of Commissioners.

"My recommendation to the 911 board, if I'm asked, is ignore it," Hoke told the Daily Courier.

The Illinois Fire District Board of Directors previously passed a resolution designating Mercy Flights, which has been serving the region for decades, as the preferred first responder.

"If Mercy is not available we'll absolutely call Oregon Lifeguard, but Mercy is our first choice," Hoke said.

Doug Stewart, the chief executive officer of Mercy Flights, also takes exception to the board's decision.

"In terms of response, whether it's us or any other company, the commissioners are not taking into consideration how long it takes the air crew to get into the air," Stewart said. "They are just looking at point A to point B.

"I can tell you this, the Josephine County commissioners did not consult with Mercy Flights or request information in regard to helicopter flights in Josephine County," Stewart said.

Commissioner Cherryl Walker, though, said that she received information about Mercy Flights from a first responder during a meeting about the issue. She also said she received similar information from Oregon Lifeguard.

Not only does Hoke disagree with the recommendation, he said was caught off guard when he saw it Thursday because he thought he and other first responders in the county would be able to review it before the board took action.

Walker, the board's liaison to first responders, did call a meeting on Jan. 12 at which the issue was discussed.

She said first responders throughout the county wanted the board to create a protocol. She said she did indicate that first responders could review the board's decision before a vote. However, subsequently she learned the board had no jurisdiction over the 911 agency on any issues.