Bangor Fire Department paramedics Brian Cochrane (right) and Nick Chapman wear full face shields during a simulation of how they respond to EMS calls with positive or inconclusive cases of COVID19. Full face shields are used to protect them from any splatter. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

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Chip Curry of Belfast represents District 11 in the Maine Senate.

 On Sept. 11, we remembered the people who lost their lives on that tragic day. We also honored the dedication of first responders who rushed to the scene and saved countless lives. At that moment, they redefined what it means to be a hero. But the first responders I’ve talked to — including EMS professionals, firefighters and police — would tell you that’s all part of the job.

We should never forget the vital work they do 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Emergency Medical Services have a critical, life-saving role within our health care system. Unfortunately, many EMS departments are struggling due to antiquated funding models, low pay and staffing shortages. Fewer than 70 of Maine’s 272 EMS departments get paid to work full-time.

Because of the severely low pay, EMS departments have difficulty retaining their workers. According to Maine EMS, Maine has lost nearly 1,500 EMTs and paramedics since 2013, which is over 20 percent of that workforce.

That’s why I’m glad my bill, “An Act to Establish the Maine Emergency Medical Services Community Grant Program,” received unanimous, bipartisan support in the Legislature and became law. This law creates a grant for EMS departments to use for funding a strategic planning process. Maine’s experts in rural EMS will work with local EMS professionals and take a deep look at how the entire department runs. Local leaders will then make the information available to the community, hold public meetings, and listen to community input so folks can better understand the condition of their EMS services and choose the best path forward.

Jay Bradshaw, executive director of the Maine Ambulance Association, testified in committee that this law “will make significant strides in helping struggling municipalities develop a plan that meets the emergency needs of those communities without putting an excessive (and often surprising) burden on taxpayers.”

Too often, we’re forced to have frustrating, hard conversations after a town is left scrambling when an EMS service faces closure. This law aims to avoid that and help local EMS departments and communities understand their risks and create a plan so the services they want and need are available.

Especially in our rural communities, the state of Maine and local governments should seize this opportunity to work together and make our EMS system sustainable. This is one step in the right direction, but more must be done.

That’s why I am honored to be the Senate chair of the new Blue Ribbon Commission to Study Emergency Medical Services in the State. The Blue Ribbon Commission on EMS will review the EMS system and recommend improvements to address issues, including funding, staffing, training, governance, and more. The same law that established the commission also declared that EMS is an essential service in Maine.

Sam Hurley, the director of the Maine EMS, and Dia Gainor, the head of the National Association of State EMS, spoke to the commission during its initial meeting. They gave us the lay of the land, showing how complex EMS is here in Maine and how other states have overcome challenges like the ones we’re facing. We also got first-hand accounts from Commission members in the trenches, navigating these challenging issues while still providing this essential service for Mainers.

So much depends on the people who respond when 911 is called. Our first responders deserve to be treated right and supported by a health care system that guarantees they are paid what they deserve and have the proper training, tools, and support to provide the essential services we all rely on. We must ensure that every system working to support our EMS professionals performs at its best.

As we reflect on Sept. 11, remember those we lost, and honor our first responders, we must look to the future with determination to rebuild a system where EMS workers are protected now and always so that they can continue to serve their communities at the highest level possible.