Keith County Foundation Fund responds to emergency needs

When he first received Regional West Medical Center’s notice that it would terminate Keith County’s emergency medical services in 180 days, Ogallala City Manager Kevin Wilkins chose to view it as an opportunity.

“We’re not alone in this, and I think we are positioned perhaps better than some of our other peer communities in coming up with a solution,” he told the Keith County Board of Commissioners during an April 2023 meeting. His optimism reflected the willingness of stakeholders across Keith County, where committed groups of elected officials, local leaders and volunteers frequently combine forces to solve complex problems.

Nearly 8,300 people call Keith County home – about 4,800 of them living in Ogallala. Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area draws roughly 1 million visitors a year. About 18,000 vehicles pass through the county daily on the interstate, according to the Nebraska Department of Transportation. Getting the City of Ogallala and Keith County on the same page was important to securing the safety of residents and visitors alike.

“Otherwise, the system as we know it is going to collapse,” said Ogallala Fire Chief Dell Simmerman at a Keith County Board of Commissioners meeting in May. “When you dial 911, you won’t have a medic. Period.”

With the clock ticking, officials sprang into action. Leaders from both county and city government moved quickly to draft an interlocal agreement to keep emergency medical service in Keith County. The agreement, approved in August 2023, ensures 24/7 service to anyone within the boundaries of Keith County. The county is responsible for employing providers as well as overseeing dispatch, billing, and more. The city provides ambulances and related equipment, along with repair and maintenance. Ogallala also maintains the facilities in which vehicles and equipment are housed.

Speaking of vehicles, the city and county found what they needed to get the service up and running, but they didn’t have the resources to add them all to the fleet. Thankfully they had a willing partner in Keith County Foundation Fund, a Nebraska Community Foundation affiliated fund. They approached the fund advisory committee (FAC) and requested assistance with raising the funds to purchase the necessary vehicles. The fund happily granted $155,000 to the city and county partnership.

“Everyone on the FAC felt it was something we needed to do,” said KCFF advisory committee member Eric Duhachek. “We needed to step forward.”

This is not the first time KCFF has awarded a grant to local emergency services. Much of this support has been invested in Paxton’s, Brule’s, and Keystone-Lemoyne’s fire and rescue departments. The Fund is well-positioned to make significant grants to better the community. In the summer of 2019, Keith County Foundation Fund received a substantial gift for a rural Nebraska community – an anonymous donor invested $8 million into KCFF, forever changing volunteers’ grantmaking capacity from $35,000 annually to upwards of $400,000.

“It’s rewarding to be able to help the public like this,” Duhachek said.

Ogallala City Council President Steven Krajewski said KCFF’s support was integral to the creation of the service.

“Keith County Foundation Fund’s support to our EMS literally has a life-or-death impact,” he said. “We owe them a great deal of gratitude for their support of our efforts to organize and equip a permanent service for Keith County.”

The new ambulance service began October 18, at the exact moment Regional West’s contract expired. Keith County residents can rest easy knowing they will be cared for if needed, and Wilkins credits the city, county, and local affiliated fund for ensuring there wouldn’t be a lapse in service.

“But for the Keith County Foundation Fund, within the time constraints we were under, this would’ve been impossible,” he said. “This is a role going beyond amenities. It’s helping provide a critical service.”

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