Panelists push agreement for emergency aid

Posted April 12, 2009, at 9:03 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — For years, local first responders have had mutual aid agreements in Maine, but a measure endorsed by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee would for the first time establish a statewide agreement.

“This is designed primarily to address mutual aid requirements during large-scale or unusual emergencies,” said Rob McAleer, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency. “It’s not meant to replace current agreements at the local or regional level.”

He said that the proposal, which was worked on by first responders from across the state, would fill a hole in the ability to respond to any emergency situation anywhere in the state.

Jeff Cammack, Bangor fire chief and chairman of the Maine Fire Protection Services Commission, said the proposal is needed, as first responders across the state must be ready to deal with increasingly complex emergency situations.

“In Bangor we have been on the giving end,” he said. “I hope we never are on the receiving end of it.”

Cammack said there have been several instances of informal cooperation between agencies across the state. He said Bangor sent its mobile communications van and staff to the St. John Valley for three days during the major flooding that took place there a year ago. He said having the statewide agreement would make it easier to match resources to needs in an emergency.

“Trying to get 454 communities to sign on to any type of mutual aid is an endeavor unto itself,” Cammack said. “In Penobscot County we tried for 20 years to get a countywide agreement, and it seems every lawyer that got their hands on it wanted to change one word here or one word there.”

He said the statewide legislation gets around that problem by applying the agreement to all cities and towns, unless they vote to opt out of the agreement. He does not expect many will do so, however, because the proposal states that any city or town is not obligated to send equipment or personnel.

“This bill is really important for rural areas,” said Dale Rowley, Waldo County Emergency Agency director. “We don’t have a lot of resources. We have a dozen ambulances in the county. If we have a school bus with 72 kids [in an accident] it’s going to take a long time for those ambulances to handle it.”

He said other rural areas in the state could face similar problems, including dealing with hazardous materials spills, chemical fires and other emergency situations.

Donald Vickery of the Maine Municipal Association said the MMA had participated in the drafting of the legislation and supports the measure. He said the bill is drafted to allow local governments to have the final say on whether they send the help that may be requested under the legislation.

“MMA is convinced that this agreement will help ensure that in time of need, resources will be directed to areas that need it the most,” Vickery said, “when the local response, however heroic, is simply overwhelmed by the emergency.”

McAleer said the measure will answer fundamental questions that always arise when personnel or equipment goes from the home community to another community. He said it creates a standardized procedure for handling reimbursement for the cost of staff and equipment, as well.

“It also establishes a standardized process to request any staff or equipment,” he said.

McAleer said the state has already established a number of regional specialized units with federal funds such as hazmat units. He said the statewide agreement also will facilitate the request and use of those types of units by a city or town.

“And in a presidentially declared disaster, where there is federal reimbursement available from [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], this will make that reimbursement process from FEMA a whole lot easier,” he said.

MEMA already maintains a database of equipment and staff resources across the state and would use that to help facilitate a request from a community for assistance.

McAleer stressed that the decision to provide the help is up to the local city or town.

“We can’t order someone to help under this; we can only ask for them to help,” he said.

The legislation was unanimously recommended by the committee and now goes to the full Legislature for consideration.

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