Md. Emergency Workers Form Powerful Lobby Through Life-and-Death Message

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton was inundated with protests about a bill to privatize medevac service.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton was inundated with protests about a bill to privatize medevac service. (James M Thresher - Twp)
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By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

The ballroom darkened, and the story unfolded: A teenager swerved to miss an oncoming car, crashed and was impaled on a fence post. He was lifted into a state police medevac helicopter and rushed to a hospital, where he was brought back from the brink.

"It's only two miles to his house, but it will be months until he gets home," said Thomas M. Scalea, the physician-in-chief at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, narrating at the black-tie event on a recent Saturday. Scalea stood in a spotlight on a fabric-draped stage as photos from the accident scene flashed on a screen behind him.

In the audience, doctors and volunteer firefighters sat beside dozens of current and former Maryland lawmakers, soaking in the show after a dinner of Stilton-Brioche-crusted sea bass and cheesecake drizzled with pomegranate syrup.

Emergency workers, a powerful grass-roots lobby in almost every state, are a fearsome political force in Maryland, drawing their strength by deftly mobilizing a large network capable of conveying the emotionally charged message that their work means the difference between life and death.

During the legislative session that ended last month, the emergency services community received almost everything it was seeking despite being under the shadow of a medevac crash that killed four and forced a review of possible overuse of the state-run helicopter service. A subsequent National Transportation Safety Board investigation made it clear that the medevac service adhered to some safety and flight standards that were less rigorous than industry norms.

In a tight budget year, lawmakers gave the Maryland State Police $52.5 million to begin purchasing new medevac helicopters and $635,000 for safety upgrades to the current fleet. The Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore received $13.5 million for an ongoing renovation and a commitment of $50 million over the next five years for a seven-story addition.

Emergency workers packed hearing rooms and other public events, often in uniform, fighting off one proposal that would have privatized the state police-run medical helicopter program, and another that would have replaced an independent agency that oversees emergency services with a department led by a political appointee.

"How many people are we going to allow to die because we took the best system in the world and watered it down?" Scalea said at a news conference before the legislative session began.

The independent agency, the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, oversees and unifies every aspect of emergency services, including firefighters, dispatchers, medics, the state-run medevac helicopter program and the state's nine trauma centers. When a proposal affects any one component, the entire network mobilizes.

"All you have to do is mention that you are going to mess with our program, and we show up in droves," said Frank Underwood, president of the Maryland State Fireman's Association.

At a hearing in March, the mother of a paramedic killed in the September crash in Prince George's County sat beside the helicopter pilot's widow. Her son would have wanted her to fight for the state police aviation program, Wilma Lippy told lawmakers.

"Keep the medevac program where it belongs: in the hands of the Maryland State Police," she said.

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