When most of you heard that Maine had requested, and been approved for, the assistance of federal emergency medical technicians – EMTs – you may have had a couple different thoughts. You may have thought it would be a godsend in the face of the increasing surge of coronavirus cases fueled by the omicron variant, then been disappointed to learn the state was only receiving 16 EMTs from the federal government – eight crews, with ambulances.

The good news is, even though that doesn’t seem like a huge number – and, to be clear, it is not – it will still be a big help in Maine for a couple reasons. We’re a small state, so even a small number of extra ambulance crews will have an outsized impact on our health care capabilities. In this case, they’ll be helping transport patients between hospitals, freeing up our own crews to deal with frontline emergencies of all sorts.

That number isn’t just deceiving because Maine is a small state, though, but because the reserve EMT program is relatively small as far as federal programs go. When you first heard of it, you may have imagined that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had a force of thousands, or at least hundreds, of full-time EMTs ready to go at a moment’s notice during a crisis.

That’s not exactly how the program works, though. In fact, the federal government deployed only 100 additional personnel during this latest announcement that included Maine; only 300 have been deployed since the omicron variant was discovered in the U.S. The White House is also activating military personnel, but that would be another 1,000 personnel.

Just as no secret plan was in place ready to go to fight a global pandemic, no secret reserve force of medical personnel is ready to respond to a disaster: Instead, the federal government largely relies on civilian and military reserves of various types. Now, to a certain degree, this makes quite a bit of sense: There’s no reason to have fully trained medical personnel sitting around doing nothing when there isn’t a crisis. Still, even if that’s not an option, we could at least have a more robust and well-funded medical personnel reserve program ready to go in case of an emergency. Especially in light of the pandemic, it’s probably time to consider increasing funding for FEMA’s medical reserves.

Yes, that’s right, you just heard an argument in my column for increasing funding for a government program, and a federal one at that. It’s rare, but there are times when the federal government can handle certain issues better than the states – or at least assist the states effectively. Emergency response is one of those issues, and if it wasn’t clear before that organizations like FEMA are vital and yet dramatically underfunded, the pandemic should have made that perfectly clear by now.

This isn’t just a federal problem, either, nor is it solely related to the pandemic: Maine was facing a shortage of EMTs – especially in rural areas – long before anyone had even heard of the novel coronavirus. Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland has a good bill in this session to address this concern by reclassifying EMS agencies as essential services, which would allow for more federal funding, but we should also expand state funding for these services.

Emergency medical care is one of those areas that’s hard to privatize, and that shouldn’t necessarily be considered. Indeed, it’s even more difficult to privatize these services than it is to privatize electrical services. Theoretically, a town could simply give a contract to a private company to provide emergency medical care to its population, but in reality that approach would raise a whole host of other questions – not only financial, but also ethical and medical. As with police work, there are certain advantages in having emergency personnel be actual governmental employees, even if only on a volunteer basis.

While it should be easy to come to the bipartisan consensus that emergency medical response needs more funding at all levels of government, the question – as always – is how to pay for it. If we’re going to increase money for emergency response, we ought to find a legitimate way to pay for it through cuts elsewhere, rather than just increasing overall spending.. That ought to be where the area of disagreement lies, not in whether our hard-working first responders deserve the resources they need to get the job done – which, in their case, is literally a matter of life or death.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]com
Twitter: @jimfossel

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