A truly perfect storm

By S. Paige Zeigler | Oct 14, 2016

Our state’s emergency-response system, based largely on volunteers, is facing a “perfect storm” of problems. As a retired merchant marine deck officer, I dislike even imperfect storms, but in running for the House seat in District 96, I’ve learned that we have several very important issues that together threaten our ability to deal with a crisis.

For one thing, our volunteer force is graying. Maine is increasingly a state of older people, and so our pool of possible volunteers is limited.

Moreover, our young people cannot make up the difference. One reason is the debt so many face after the post-secondary education they undertook to have careers. To pay back their student loans, they have to chase jobs and often move elsewhere. Those who stay often have to work two jobs and are too busy to volunteer. Between children and work, there is no time to fight fires or flooding.

Worse yet, training for our first responders has become more demanding in both time and money. I was lucky, as my emergency medical and firefighting training were paid for by my employer. These added credentials made me a more valuable employee and increased my salary. However, there is little if any monetary return for most volunteers.

Then there’s the expense of equipment. As emergency situations become more complex, the gear becomes more expensive. We turn to our towns to pick up the costs, write grant applications, and take what state or federal monies are available. This strains our local resources, which have been insufficient to meet all the needs of municipalities.

As if that weren’t enough, the dramatic increase in opiate overdoses puts more strain on the system. Between police and emergency medical personnel there is pressure to respond to overdoses. Those calls also demand increasing costs in medicines for those overdoses.

Now add the likelihood of more frequent flooding in some years, and more drought and wildfires in others, from climate change. All these issues add up to a perfect storm — just a figure of speech for now but maybe a literal event in the foreseeable future.

What can we do? We can assist towns with the costs. Our state government has not been funding our towns adequately. The present administration is more concerned with giving tax breaks to the wealthy than supporting our emergency system. Our U.S. senators have pushed for a bill that will give emergency personnel a $600 property tax break. While this is a very good start, many millennials don’t own homes because again they can not get loans due to student debt. We need to ask them what would work for them.

My father taught me to pay my bills before I give any money away. We need to pay our bills. Our volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel save this state a lot of money and thus keep our taxes lower than they otherwise would be. We need to give them the help they require and deserve. We need to help our youth with their student debt so they can afford to volunteer. We need to develop an infrastructure that includes good transportation capacity, good education, and good high-speed internet, all of which attract the kinds of jobs that will allow our children to stay in Maine, prosper, and broaden the tax base.

Of course, that’s only one storm. On a larger scale, we also must do our part to deal with critical environmental changes and mitigate them. The best and easiest way is to address current sources of energy. Again our state executive branch is refusing to admit that there is a problem by wanting to use fossil fuels as the future. We need critical thinking to work on this problem and not just hold on to outdated approaches. If we can act both quickly and intelligently, there need not be a perfect storm.

Stanley Paige Zeigler is the Democratic candidate for House District 96, which represents residents of Belmont, Liberty, Lincolnville, Montville, Morrill, Palermo and Searsmont.

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