November 2021
There When We Need Them
The challenges of working as a rural paramedic

We at 5ensesarefascinated with people— their stories, their biographies, the red thread that makes them unique among their peers. Because this publication follows the local art scene closely and works to support this vital part of our community, typically we do profiles on artists. But anyone can have an interesting story, and when we come across someone whose story deserves to be told, we step up and tell it. That’s the beauty of being a small, independent publication.

My daughter is a premed student, and as part of the foundation of experience she is building in preparation for medical school, she trained and has worked for a time as an emergency medical technician, or EMT. It’s tough, underpaid and sometimes scary. She mentioned working with a paramedic on some shifts that she had come to respect tremendously, and suggested we profile him. He did not disappoint.

Keith Lowry grew up in upstate New York. He attended public school, and his fifth-grade teacher took the last half-hour of each school day to teach his class first aid. He was an excellent teacher who took those skills seriously, and it made a big impression on Keith.

In high school Keith joined the Cadet Program of the Civil Air Patrol, a civilian volunteer-based auxiliary of the US Air Force that engages in search and rescue, disaster relief and aerospace education. Keith picked up CPR and many other basic first-responder skills before graduating from high school and getting his training as an emergent medical technician.

I can’t imagine doing another job.” — Keith Lowry

He worked for a year as an EMT, then became an intermediate (between EMT and paramedic), and began doing a lot of trauma care. He worked in the Albany area in emergency medical services, getting plenty of big-city experience, but it was when he moved to Arizona in 2000, got his paramedic training and began working in a more rural setting that his skills really broadened and deepened. “I thought I was a good paramedic when I worked big-city EMS.I thought I was carved out of wood. It wasn’t until I started working out of Wickenburg and Congress that I really began to appreciate working without a lot of resources. You have to be at the top of your game in a rural setting.”

Keith has been working for Lifeline in the Prescott area for 15 years, and for 25 years total in EMS. When you hear him talk you can’t help but see how much he loves his work. “I can’t imagine doing another job. As a paramedic you are people’s first contact in an emergency. You have to be an excellent scene manager and have great people skills.” It’s not always the big calls like car accidents and fires that are the most inspiring. Sometimes it’s the elderly patient who just lost his wife of 50years. Keith feels that every day he gets a chance to make a difference.

Working in EMS comes with a lot of challenges. EMTs and paramedics are more likely to be assaulted than police. They have high rates of mental illness due to the trauma they see on a regular basis. They are constantly exposed to illnesses, some extremely dangerous and contagious, like Covid. They also work long hours, often driving while sleep-deprived. The wages are not generous, so many EMS workers tend to work extra shifts for the overtime pay.

When Keith joined Lifeline it was a small, privately owned company. There wasn’t a perceived need for a union, because workers were treated well and the company was well managed. Then the owner sold it to American Medical Response, and that in turn sold six years ago to Global Medical Response. Since that time wages and benefits stagnated. It was time to consider unionizing.

Many public-service workers belong to unions. Police, firefighters and sanitation workers enjoy the pay and benefits they have largely because of unions. EMS workers are just as essential as police and fire in a community, but low wages discourage new staff from joining the workforce, and understaffing forces existing workers to work more hours than they safely should. EMS workers depend on overtime for a living wage, the long hours driving ambulances and making life-and-death decisions is dangerous, both for patients and for staff. I personally know a young man who flipped an ambulance because he fell asleep at the wheel.

A group of Lifeline workers reached out to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)in 2017 and invited union representatives to come speak with them in Prescott. 85% of the local Lifeline EMS workers wanted to unionize, so it was formalized. This action precipitated the forming of other new union chapters across the state. Keith became a union representative early in this process. On meeting him you see right away why he is a perfect spokesperson for his colleagues. He is a dedicated, highly vetted and level-headed person, so he was asked to step up.

As chief steward for AFSCMELocal2960 of Prescott, Keith was on the team that negotiated a new contract, settled just weeks ago. This agreement raises EMT hourly wages from $12.40 to 15 and paramedic wages from $16.35 to 19, after having been stagnant for too long.

Keith strongly supports the role of the union in insuring decent quality of life for workers. He points out that if you look at the statistics across the nation, unionized companies pay about 30% more than non-union companies. This is across the board, in every state and every category, including women, African-Americans and Latinos. If you work for a unionized company you simply make more money, enjoy better benefits and have protection from workplace abuse and injury.

AMR has become the largest ambulance provider in Arizona, and having an organized system for communication, addressing grievances and negotiating wages and benefits makes a huge difference in the lives of our EMS workers. Being part of a large union gives these workers a seat at the table.

Keith has just changed jobs, moving from Lifeline to medical air transport company Native Air as a flight medic. Anyone who has experienced an airlift knows the urgency and skills needed to fly desperately sick or injured patients to another medical facility. Keith’s long years of experience and extensive training will serve him in his work, as well as his calm and competent demeanor. He will still be serving the Prescott area, but now more in the air than on the ground.

He is deeply proud of his work, both as a paramedic and as a union representative, and is excited to continue giving patients the best care he can. “This I can live with for the rest of my life. This can be my legacy.”

Abby Brill is Associate Editor of 5enses.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.