2nd Quarter 2021 President’s Message

By Rob Henken

During the second quarter the Forum completed two more fire and EMS service sharing studies (one for the villages of Union Grove and Yorkville and the other for the City of Milton). When added to the three we completed in the fourth quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021 (for municipalities in Jefferson, La Crosse, and Ozaukee counties), that makes five in less than a year.

The requests continue to pour in. We’ll be launching a study for several fire departments in the Fox Valley in the third quarter and we’ll also be taking on some follow-up work in Greater Racine that is linked to a fire and EMS service sharing study we completed in 2019.

So why is the Forum fielding a growing number of requests for research and analytical assistance from fire and EMS agencies across Wisconsin?

I wish I could report that it’s solely because elected leaders are seeing the light with regard to the benefits of enhanced sharing or consolidation, particularly for functions like fire and EMS that require sizable capital investments in apparatus and stations and a highly skilled workforce. Yes, that recognition is beginning to emerge, but this trend is linked even more closely to a growing sense of desperation from small communities that are finding it exceedingly difficult to sustain their own fire and rescue operations.

For decades, small Wisconsin villages and towns have survived quite nicely with fire departments that rely largely on part-time volunteers. In fact, in a report we released earlier this year that compared local spending across the 50 states, we found that per capita fire department spending in Wisconsin is slightly below the national average. That’s in part because 92.5% of Wisconsin’s 763 registered fire departments are volunteer or mostly volunteer – the 14th-highest rate in the country.

There are several different volunteer models, including some in which part-time responders are paid only when they are called in to respond to a call; others in which they receive stipends to be available at certain times of day or are paid hourly to work shifts at the station; and others in which they respond to calls without pay, although that purely volunteer model now applies most often only for fire calls and not EMS.

For small communities whose departments receive no more than a call or two per day, this model makes sense. Instead of paying full-time salaries and benefits to have crews of responders stationed at the fire house waiting for an infrequent call to come in, these departments have been able to maintain robust rosters of individuals who live or work nearby and can drop what they are doing to respond when needed. Often, they are supplemented by one or two full-time staff (possibly the chief or fire inspector) who might be able to initiate the response and can be joined at the scene by reinforcements.

Unfortunately, while the volunteer fire and rescue model is a point of great pride for many communities, it is becoming next to impossible for a growing number to sustain. EMS calls have grown over time and now comprise nearly 80% of most departments’ call volumes. They are most frequent during daytime hours, when volunteers are least likely to be available to respond. EMS personnel also have additional licensing and training requirements that can be a significant burden; combined with the busy lifestyles of today’s society, this has produced shrunken volunteer rosters for many departments.

Some small departments have responded by maintaining only their fire operations (plus possibly first response) while turning to contracts with private ambulance companies or larger neighboring departments for paramedic service or basic EMS. But staffing challenges are emerging for those entities, as well. In Milwaukee, for example, two of the private companies that supplement the city’s EMS response recently pulled out of contractual agreements because of difficulty filling shifts.

Several of our recent studies have suggested that moving to a larger mix of full-time staff will be a must for many small departments. Unfortunately, that may be cost prohibitive and perhaps impossible without a voter referendum in light of state-imposed property tax limits. That’s why teaming up with neighboring departments may be the best solution given the opportunity it provides to share the cost of full-time staff and expensive vehicle replacements.

This President’s message does not offer enough space for me to fully lay out the insights we have gained through our multiple fire and EMS service sharing analyses and our thoughts on where state legislative action could be helpful or even vital. We plan to do so in a report we’ll publish later this year.

In the meantime, we hope state and local elected officials are paying attention to our recent reports and the overriding message they’re sending: the ability of many communities to provide an appropriate level of fire and emergency medical services is in jeopardy and may soon necessitate an emergency response of its own.