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New Heckathorn becomes JCEMS chief

Longtime paramedic and volunteer


by: HOLLY M. GILL - Liz HeckathornFor the first time ever, a woman will head up Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services.

Liz Heckathorn, 55, of Madras, won over the five-member board with her extensive education and experience and became the new chief on Dec. 3.

Although she had been a part-time paramedic at JCEMS since 1995, Heckathorn was employed full time as the trauma and survey manager for Oregon Health Authority in Portland until the day before she started work at the ambulance district office on the Old Culver Highway.

"If you look at her resumé, it’s pretty clear that she has the training and expertise, and background and managerial skills I felt that we needed," said John Curnutt, chairman of the JCEMS Board of Directors. "Part of the appeal was the view from 30,000 feet, instead of the view from 10,000 feet; we thought we needed that. We felt that was something she brought to the table."

Heckathorn is joining the district full time just four months after the death of her husband, Don Heckathorn, who had served as ambulance chief since 2007. Don Heckathorn died Aug. 14, six days after he was critically injured in a motorcycle accident.

"I have the highest praise for this group for keeping the emergency medical services to our community functioning over this difficult period," said Liz Heckathorn, who worked on grief counseling and focused on family for the first few months after her new husband's death.

Although they had only been married since January, she said they had been dating for three years and had known each other for over 20 years.

Mike Lepin, assistant chief, stepped in as interim chief just after Don Heckathorn's death.

"I think Mike did an incredible job in the interim between Chief Don Heckathorn’s death and the hiring of Liz Heckathorn in managing the troops and keeping things together and showing the necessary leadership, because everybody was hurting," said Curnutt.

The district advertised the position, and put together a committee, which selected five candidates from the applications. The board narrowed that to two: Liz Heckathorn and Lepin.

"I felt that both candidates had very strong resumés, and we felt pressed to make a decision," he said.

Heckathorn, formerly Liz Morgan, grew up in Sandy, obtained her Associate of Applied Science in Criminal Justice from Portland Community College, and Human Resource Management Certification from Portland State University.

Her professional career has included working as a surgical assistant at eye clinics, and as a course coordinator and instructor at Central Oregon Community College and Portland Community College, before becoming the EMS program director at Mount Hood Community College — a part time position she held until accepting the local job.

Before becoming the trauma and survey manager for Oregon Public Health in April, she had been the chief investigator for Oregon Health Authority EMS and Trauma Systems from 2000 until March 2013. Prior to that, she served as the EMS captain, as well as firefighter and paramedic, for the city of Prineville's fire and EMS.

Over the years, she has earned numerous awards, including an award for education in ethics from Oregon Health and Sciences University in 2006; firefighter/paramedic of the year for the Crook County Rural Fire Protection District in 2000; volunteer of the year for JCEMS in 1999; educator of the year at COCC for 1998-99; and the Oregon State Paramedic of the Year and Meritorious Service Award in 1994 in Portland.

Heckathorn intends to emphasize community relationships. "I really see our staff as community partners and community role models for health and fitness," she said, adding that she sees exercise "as a way to decrease stress and potentially decrease injuries with better physical fitness."

"It seems to me she has hit the ground running," said Curnutt. "She has instituted a couple of interesting changes and is examining procedures; her suggestions are precise and insightful."

When she became chief, she asked the board to pay half of gym memberships for career members and approve discounted rates for part-time members and operational volunteers. The request was granted.

The district has seven full-time staff members; a part-time accounting officer; 13 part-time employees; 12 operational volunteer members who are licensed as EMTs or paramedics; two support volunteer members who are not EMTs, and a medical director (Dr. Doug Lieuallen).

"Everything in my career has led me to leading an organization like Jefferson County EMS," said Heckathorn, who had discussed with her late husband the possibility of applying for the chief position when he retired.

"As a state employee, you're limited to what kind of political activities you can be involved in," she continued. "As a district employee, you gain a voice into improving prehospital care and health care in general. This is a time when health care in our state and nation is changing."

Heckathorn has a daughter and four sons, ranging in age from 29-36, all living in the Portland area.



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  • 25 Oct 2014

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