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The South Dakota Emergency Medical Services Association (SDEMSA) has named the Onida Fire Department Ambulance Emergency Medical Service of the Year.

The award was presented last Sunday at the end of the SDEMSA’s annual conference, held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are very honored to have been selected from among South Dakota’s 125 ambulance services as Service of the Year,” said Onida Fire Chief Caleb Shepherd. “It has been a great first 64 years, and we are looking forward to continuing to serve the area for many more years to come.”

The OFD ambulance service was established in 1956 by the Onida Fire Department in response to a bad vehicle accident in the area, and no transportation available to the hospital in Pierre. Fire department funds were tight, so some of the early members personally signed the note for the funds to purchase the first ambulance, a big old Plymouth. They graduated from that to a couple of Pontiac and Buick hearse style ambulances in the 60’s, van type ambulances in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s, and Type 3s and Type 1s ambulances since then. The OFD currently runs a 2018 Type 1 Chevrolet 3500/Arrow ambulance.

In the early years, ambulance personnel didn’t receive much in the way of training, serving mostly as a transport to get the patient to the hospital as fast as possible. Gradually training was implemented, Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) classes were held, and the department evolved to include a strong EMT presence.

The synergy of the fire department and ambulance being together has helped the manpower issue through the years, as while not all fire department members are EMT’s, they are available to drive the ambulance, help with patient loading, traffic control and such. The OFD has had many firefighters over the years who did not start out as EMT’s, but after being around and helping out on calls, decided to take the EMT class themselves in order to be able to contribute even more.

The ambulance service has been financially self-supporting from day one. Ambulance operations run on donations received and from the proceeds from billing for ambulance runs. No County or City tax revenues are used to support the ambulance service. The volunteers receive no pay or stipends for taking part in ambulance runs, and the department still uses the old fashioned “first ones to show up get to go on runs,” and so far have not had any problems with staffing on runs. Currently, 16 of the 30 fire department members are EMT’s (14 basic, 2 Intermediate-85’s). The department averages around 50 transports per year.

In addition to delivering pre-hospital emergency care, the OFD conducts EMS week activities and provides CPR instruction for area groups. The OFD has been instrumental in getting Automatic External Defibrillators (AEDs) placed throughout Onida and Agar, and in locations by the Missouri River.

In 2019, the department took part in hosting a mock disaster drill at Cow Creek Recreation Area. In 2020, the ambulance service started a scholarship program for Sully Buttes seniors, prioritizing any students going into the public safety or medical fields, awarding two $1000 scholarships. The department is also kicking off an AED cost share grant program to get more of the devices out in the county, available where they are needed most.

The ambulance has always enjoyed great community support from Onida and the residents of Sully County, with great attendance and giving at fundraisers, kind words, and expressions of thanks for the services the department provides.

The Onida Fire Department Ambulance was previously named EMS of the Year in 2000.

The SDEMSA works to promote better communication between emergency services and the communities they serve, to provide the best possible pre-hospital emergency healthcare, and to provide for the exchange of successful ideas among its members.