Lack of volunteers, eligible recruits forces Woodland Fire Department to discontinue services

WOODLAND, Wis. – A lack of volunteers and eligible recruits in the area is forcing a longstanding fire department in rural Dodge County to make a tough decision.

A large majority of Wisconsin’s fire departments are run mostly or entirely by volunteers, according to recent government statistics. It’s getting harder for many departments to recruit those volunteers, fire service leaders said, especially in rural communities.

The Woodland Fire Department has been around for nearly 150 years, but this year will be its last.

More than 30 years ago, Woodland Fire Chief Tony Roethle answered the call to serve his community by joining the department.

“It helps the community,” Roethle said. “You make a lot of friends.”

Woodland, an unincorporated community in the towns of Herman and Rubicon, is fairly quiet, and calls for new recruits have stayed fairly quiet as well.

Roethle said there seem to be less young people around.

“The good jobs are farther away,” he said. “There’s not as many agricultural jobs, farm jobs like there used to be. Those people aren’t available to recruit.”

Currently, Roethle said the all-volunteer department has 14 members, with just one under the age of 30, to cover its 36 square-mile territory. Of those members, he said about eight can regularly respond to calls. Ideally, he said that number would be more like 30.

“Then you wouldn’t have to worry about making it to every call,” Roethle said. “Now it’s, when you’re gone on weekends or on vacation, you always worry if someone’s going to be there.”

“The rural-ness of our communities is really suffering,” Cassville Fire Chief Ron Hampton said. “We don’t have the jobs to keep people in town, and that’s the biggest strike against us right now.”

A lifelong member of his community, too, Hampton said recruits can be tough to come by in shrinking communities. As a board member of the Wisconsin State Firefighters Association, he said he worries it will become a more common issue – one that needs to be addressed.

“One of the things in the fire service we’re really good at is taking care of everything,” he said. “We’re not really good at telling people what we need and how we get there.”

Hampton encourages residents to check in with their volunteer departments to make sure they have enough support for the services they want in their community.

“If I were to discontinue service in Cassville, we’re looking at a 30 minute response time from the neighboring community,” Hampton said. “That’s the big fear. You sit there and watch it burn, and you sit there and wait.”

Roethle said three neighboring departments – Iron Ridge, Hustisford and Neosho – already respond to calls in collaboration with Woodland, and will be able to take over their territory. Because of their proximity, he doesn’t think response times will increase by much, if at all.

“In our area, we have pretty good fire support,” Roethle said. “You get farther north, where the departments are farther and farther apart, it’s really going to hurt them a lot more than it hurts us here.”

Currently, the Woodland Fire Department’s annual operating budget is $72,000, with no paid positions. Roethle said the Towns of Herman and Rubicon will negotiate a new contract with surrounding departments going forward.

Roethle said while discontinuing services is a tough decision, its’ the best one for his community.

“There’s a lot of pride in the fire service. You have to swallow a lot of pride to realize you can’t do something,” he said. “We’re doing fine so far, but we don’t want to get to the point where we can’t get the job done because of a lack of manpower.”

Full services will continue until midnight on Dec. 31.