As the fire chief of Hemet, we never know when our firefighters and paramedics will need to be deployed to respond to an emergency, but we’re always ready. When families in our community face an unexpected incident or medical emergency, we will be there as quickly as possible to ensure they get the appropriate level care they need from the nearest hospital.

During any medical emergency, every decision we make can mean the difference between life and death.  For many who live in the rural pockets of Southern California – up to 100 miles away from the nearest hospital – emergency air medical services is the only option. In fact, across the country, there are 85 million Americans who live in a rural area that is more than an hour from a Level I or Level II trauma center if driven by ground ambulance.

As a former flight paramedic and having served as a firefighter and paramedic for the Orange County Fire Authority for 18 years, I saw firsthand the difference air medical services could make for patients. In the air, patients receive critical care from highly-trained flight doctors, nurses and paramedics. From strokes to car accidents to heart attacks to other traumatic injuries, we always knew that getting patients the right care in the right amount of time was imperative for saving their lives.

While the benefits of these air services are clear, they are increasingly threatened across California and the nation. The reimbursement rates provided by Medicaid and Medicare fail to cover a significant portion of the cost to operate these services, which is alarming when you consider that 70 percent of transport patients are covered by government insurance or have no insurance at all.

We need Congress to address this funding challenge, or Californians may have to face serious consequences when they or their families face medical emergencies. Just a few months ago, an Air Methods base recently closed in Hazard, Kentucky, and they were forced to shut down because of the cost deficit from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates.

Thankfully, efforts are underway to preserve emergency air medical services. Initiatives like the “Save Our Air Medical Resources” campaign are working to educate the public on the problems and possible solutions surrounding continued air medical services. There are also leaders in Congress, like Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-CA 36, a former emergency room doctor, who understand the importance of these services in saving patients’ lives.

Whether by ground ambulance, air medical transport or on the scene, we need all treatment and transport options available because we know every choice we make counts.  It is essential we do everything we can to protect and preserve access to emergency air medical services so that they remain a realistic, life-saving option for everyone.

Scott Brown is the Hemet fire chief and has served as a paramedic for the Orange County Fire Authority for 18 years.