Four rural Oregon fire departments have voted to form a single, large agency through an Intergovernmental Agreement, which will begin July 1.

Representatives from East Umatilla County Rural Fire Protection District, Helix Rural Fire Protection District, Athena Volunteer Fire Department and East Umatilla County Ambulance Area Health District (Medic 400) voted Wednesday night to join forces, according to Chief Dave Baty with the East Umatilla County Rural Fire Protection District.

The decision still has to go back to the East Umatilla County Rural Fire Protection District & Rescue board on June 4, which will decide whether to sign off on the agreement, he said. That board consists of two people apiece from the East Umatilla district, Athena City Council, Helix Rural district, and Medic 400.

“Everybody has recognized the value in this,” Baty said.

The new agency of about 35 firefighters and medics will cover about 450 square miles and will cost the same for people within its boundaries, as there is no change in the tax base at this point. For example, the current cost for East Umatilla County Rural Fire Protection District residents is $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value, he said. That may change in May 2020, Baty said, but he was unsure by how much.

“The IGA is not an actual district,” Baty said, adding it will share the burden of responding to calls. They will not share money, but will keep their respective budgets. He added the annual budget for East Umatilla County Rural Fire Protection District was about $230,000 and about $62,000 for Helix, the two he oversees. He didn’t know the budgets for the other entities.

Before the agreement’s implementation, Baty said an entity would respond to a call and determine whether help was needed. If it was, they would notify dispatch, who would deploy another department. With the new agreement, he said, those closest to the incident would respond without waiting for additional help to be called.

“Everybody’s going to be live, so everybody goes,” Baty said.

But that may change, Baty said, because even if the agreement is finalized, it might not last long because the entities progress as their respective coverage areas’ needs change.

The decision to join forces has been discussed for at least several months, Baty said, with town halls taking place throughout the coverage area. Attendees thought it was a good idea, he said, but many told him they were unaware the fire departments were all volunteer, except for a few medics, which surprised him.

Two more town halls to discuss the agreement are scheduled for May 24 at 431 E. Main St., Athena, and June 10 at 103 W. Main St., Weston.

One item of ongoing concern, Baty said, was obtaining decent equipment because the departments “are existing on a shoestring budget.”

Used engines often are bought, and volunteers use their own time getting them service-ready, he said.

“Sometimes we’re getting the second-half of the life of an item,” Baty said.

His hope, he said, was to obtain newer equipment at some point, which may be possible with the new agreement if it progresses into a district.

Personnel wasn’t an issue, he said, adding he had six applicants waiting for background checks to be completed.

“We don’t have any trouble getting volunteers,” he said. “There are a lot of people around here who want to help other people.”

Emily Thornton can be reached at or 526-8325.

Emily Thornton can be reached at or 509-526-8325.

Emily Thornton covers courts and emergency services, as well as other various stories. She has been in the newspaper industry off and on since roughly 1999 and lived primarily on the West Coast, but also Florida and Europe.