Wisconsin fire departments navigate service challenges
A strong fire and EMS department is an important component of any community of any size. However, when those services are struggling, it can spell disaster.
Over the last several years, communities in Wisconsin have struggled to staff their fire and EMS to the point where some departments have gone out of service.
“I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that several Wisconsin fire departments are in trouble,” Wisconsin Policy Forum President Rob Henken said.
Many of these difficulties boil down to staffing, according to Henken.
Ironically, departments are not necessarily struggling to find firefighters and EMTs. The complication, Henken said, lies with departments that, until now, have successfully incorporated a part-time model, with staff working separate day jobs and coming in only when responding to an emergency.
“If you’re a small community and you’re answering one or two fire or EMS calls per day, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to have full-time firefighters and EMS responders who are at the station waiting for those calls to come in,” Henken said.
While this model worked well in the past, part-time emergency personnel now find it more difficult to respond to calls during regular business hours.
“Even if you have a robust part-time roster, that’s the toughest time to get people to come in because some sizeable percentages of your part-time roster are likely going to be the people with other employment, and they can’t necessarily leave their place of work to go and respond to a call as readily as they can on the weekend or at nighttime,” Henken said.
To complicate matters, call volumes are increasing as cities and towns continue to grow and as populations age.
“Seniors tend to use 911 more than younger people,” Henken said. “So, as the population ages, often there is a growth in call volumes.”
In general, residents of all ages tend to call 911 for types of situations that, perhaps a decade or two ago, they would not have, he added.
This problem has plagued smaller cities and towns, though larger jurisdictions are not immune.
“Our largest fire department in the state of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, is having a huge problem right now,” Henken said. “They contract with four or five ambulance services to supply their own EMS response, and two of those private companies are pulling out of their contracts because they cannot sufficiently staff up.”
Devastatingly, these struggles have caused some smaller departments to go out of service altogether. The good news, Henken said, is there are a number of avenues they can explore before resorting to this.
One option is to contract or merge with fire and EMS services in adjacent communities. Such is the case with Milton and Janesville, Wis.
A second — though perhaps more costly — solution is to upgrade to full-time staff or add one or two full-time employees who can be available to respond to calls during the week. Depending on available funding, a department may even decide to become entirely full-time.
“There’s a spectrum they can pursue there,” Henken said.
The downside to this is the consequences, tax-wise, on residents. In some cases, making the switch could require a voter referendum, with Henken citing strict property tax levy limits that are in place for Wisconsin municipalities.
“Increasingly, we are seeing communities in Wisconsin go to voter referendum to exceed property tax levy limits for the express purpose of adding fire and EMS staff,” he said.
As far as merging, there are pros and cons to consider. If only one of the departments is staffed, response time could be compromised due to travel between cities. However, this can also be a pro, particularly if the station being used is staffed full time.
“Even if they have to travel an extra five or six minutes, that’s equivalent to the time it would take for a small department with a part-time staffing model to actually call in and assemble the staff to actually respond,” Henken said. “So, sometimes there would be a lowering of response time.”
If a department that serves a large area is staffing a station in a smaller community, the burden of growing call volumes could be eased somewhat, as the smaller station can be used to respond to calls within that service area.
“If Janesville was to staff the Milton station, there would be a benefit to Janesville as well, because they’re considering having to build a new station in the northern part of their jurisdiction, and the Milton station could potentially buy some relief there,” Henken said.
The Milton fire department serves the city of Milton, the town of Milton and surrounding townships. In order to keep up with calls, the department began considering full-time staffing. However, Henken said this would have greatly increased costs for all involved.
Another scenario included the city and towns going their separate ways, with the city forming its own department and the towns merging with Janesville. However, Henken believes the most logical solution would be for the entire joint city-town department to merge with Janesville.
“From a service level perspective, that would appear to be a win-win,” he said. “Would it be more costly? Yes, but at this point, all of the options are going to be more costly.”
Milton is far from the only Wisconsin fire department that is struggling. In Ozaukee County, as many as nine departments of all sizes are experiencing difficulties.
The problem is not limited to small communities. Henken cited a city of 15,000 to 16,000 people that has a thriving population yet is still relying on part-time staff.
“It knows it needs to move on from that, but even with its relative affluence and growth, it is having trouble pulling the trigger on spending money to do that,” he said.
Countywide, there have been situations where one of those nine departments cannot respond to a call and must rely entirely on mutual aid.
“That’s scary,” Henken said, citing both a lengthier response time and an added burden to the neighboring department that is responding. It can also build resentment, especially for towns that have made the investment to increase their staff. Now their neighbors, who may have not yet bitten that proverbial bullet, rely on them more and more.
“We, as a nonpartisan nonprofit, we’re not looking for business in this area, but we’re very happy the communities are coming to us because collaboration is key here. That’s good government.” Henken said. “For fire and EMS, you need to have mutual aid, and you need to have cooperation across municipal borders, so solving these challenges together makes sense.”
All is not doom and gloom, however. Henken noted several departments are now thriving after successfully merging.
“The one that is talked about most readily is the North Shore Fire Department,” he said.
This is a consolidation of fire departments from seven communities in Milwaukee County, which merged in 1995. A 2015 report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum showed this department still going strong.
Two communities in Racine County — Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant — have also joined forces and are going strong. The consolidated Western Lakes Department in Waukesha County has grown successfully. It is now providing EMS service for some nearby communities.
Countywide EMS programs are another avenue for struggling departments.
“EMS tends to be now 75-80% of the calls many departments receive,” Henken said. “Fire calls are infrequent, and to fight a fire, you’re relying on mutual aid from neighboring departments anyway.”
With that being said, there are several resources and formats fire departments can tap into before deciding to close their doors for good. “Ultimately, if they say they can’t do this anymore, they need to look at another way to provide the service — whether contracting with another neighboring department for EMS, they can contract with a private ambulance company or another type of EMS agency. There is now some privatization as far as fire services,” Henken said.
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