After 122 years of volunteer service on the force, Sun Prairie’s fire department could soon see salaried firefighters.
Lt. John Austad is the president of the Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department, Inc. (SPVFD, Inc.), the group that represents the 45 volunteers and four full-time paid employees that work at the city’s stations.
Austad said on May 7, the department’s leadership was asked to attend a meeting with city officials. Austad said at that meeting, the city told SPVFD, Inc. a committee had chosen to move in a new direction.
City council members voted to apply for a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from FEMA. At that point, Austad said the city discontinued negotiations of their contracts.
Austad said those changes were not discussed with the townships of Burke, Bristol, and Sun Prairie before the evening of the announcement. He said his organization had been trying to talk with the city about renewing its five-year contract for 10 months with no response or action.
“No negotiations took place, there were no negotiations that even at our request over the last ten months,” Austad said.
City Administrator Aaron Oppenheimer said the potential for change has been discussed for years. He said combining fire and EMS under one city-run operation will help economize training and streamline response.
“Certainly, they were aware the city was contemplating a number of different options,” Oppenheimer said.
Oppenheimer added there will be both full-time career position and paid on-call staff, giving the current volunteers an opportunity to earn money for the time they spend saving lives.
“It's getting more and more complicated for individuals to be firefighters,” Oppenheimer said. “There's more training involved, certification, (and) just time commitment. We want to make sure that people are compensated for that time.”
Oppenheimer said the mayor has committed to making this change, whether or not the city is approved for a FEMA grant. That could mean writing any additional costs to pay personnel to the budget.
Oppenheimer believed the transition to the city-run department will take place by the end of the year.
Town of Bristol Chairman Jerry Derr confirmed he was only notified of the change two or three hours before the meeting when the city announced the decision. He claimed the city kept putting off the call, avoiding conversations about contract negotiations with SPVFD, Inc.
Derr added the decision and process were disheartening, and he believes half of the volunteers from Sun Prairie would donate their time to town stations if they do have to create their own in the future.
Meanwhile, Austad is concerned for what this means for his volunteers.
“We have no indication of what's going to happen to the 45 men and women who dedicate their lives basically to serve not only the City of Sun Prairie, but also the townships of Burke, Bristol, and Sun Prairie,” Austad said.
All of the parties involved with this switch plan to meet next Thursday morning to talk over options.