Report: Fire, EMS departments nearing crisis in Wisconsin as 911 calls rise, staffing declines

Lake Mills Fire Department
Lake Mills Fire Department (WISC-TV/Channel 3000 Photo)

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Wis. – When flames tore through a Fort Atkinson warehouse in early August, fire departments from as far away as Illinois responded.

Jefferson Fire Chief Ronald Wegner, president of the Jefferson County Fire Chiefs Association and whose department was one of many who responded that week, said that when a call for response went out–there just wasn’t enough people close by to go.

“You keep calling for help and calling for help till enough people show up,” Wegner said. For his and many other fire/EMS departments across Wisconsin, the staffing situation is untenable.

“We have a system that is broken, and it’s really imploding right now,” Wegner said.

On Wednesday, the non-partisan Wisconsin Policy Forum released a report years in the making, finding rising numbers of EMS calls and a growing inability to maintain current service models is contributing to a growing challenge for fire and EMS departments across Wisconsin.

It’s not just the massive fires that are shedding a light on a growing crisis. It’s evident in the paid-on-call firefighter who has to leave his full-time job midday on a call for which he might make $10 an hour–or $10 in total. It’s also an increase in EMS calls: now closely linked in many jurisdictions to fire responders, but intrinsically different in training and response.

“There are some real growing personnel challenges that are calling into question whether the service model they are using can be sustained, and which is begging a very important related question,” WPF President Ron Henken said. “What happens if it can’t?”

Current service models untenable as recruitment challenges rise

Traditionally, small Wisconsin fire departments use a “paid-on-call” or volunteer model to meet their community’s needs. But as a labor shortage grows, an aging population drives up the number of 911 calls, and funding constraints restrict how much departments can pay–that model is growing increasingly untenable.

The WPF’s research, which encompasses eight years and multiple smaller studies, focused on whether increasing coordination and collaboration between departments could help address the challenges.

Fewer people are willing or able to serve in the traditional paid-on-call model. In Lake Mills, it’s increasingly hard to fill a 33-man part-time roster with a $10-an-hour appeal.

“Locally, when you came into town, you can stop at Kwik Trip or McDonalds and get paid $15 an hour–with some benefits,” Lake Mills fire chief Todd Yandre explained.

In Lake Mills, the municipality has paid an independent contractor to respond to emergency medical calls. Yandre has been with the department for forty-one years: first as a volunteer before working up the ranks. For a long time, he was the only full-time employee. Recently, he’s been able to hire a second full-time person as a captain.

“Recruiting is getting harder,” Yandre said. “The pool just isn’t there like it was years ago when I first started.”

Now, the average time he can keep an on-call employee is about three years. That makes a difference in the kind of response people receive in the 72-square-mile service area they cover–the difference between a recently-trained firefighter, and one who’s served his community for ten or fifteen years. Yandre is exploring the use of other incentives now, like paying for a firefighter’s education.

“Each year it seems like it’s getting tougher and tougher,” he said. It’s not just Jefferson County, southern Wisconsin, or the state: it’s the country. “We’re all fighting for the same people that are out there. And that pool, nationally, is getting smaller.”

The pay situation for on-call firefighters is even tougher in Jefferson, where the fire department is short 16 on-call positions currently. They still operate under an archaic points model, Chief Wegner said. With it, the fire department has a fixed pool of money for which volunteers rack up points for various services or incidents, each point of which is worth $10.

“Whether you’re here 10 seconds, 10 minutes, 10 hours, or 10 days–you get 10 bucks.”

Calls for EMS rise statewide

Statewide, the WPF report found 911 calls for emergency medical service are increasing across the state due to an aging population. The increase is straining small departments whose staff isn’t increasing to match.

“As citizens age, they tend to make greater use of 911,” Henken explained. “We see communities where the call volumes are increasing from year to year as a result.”

While their five-member EMS team is full time, Jefferson’s service area is also racking up higher numbers of both fire and emergency medical calls. Across the state, Chief Wegner hears the same.

“We are at a point today in many communities where you call 911, and maybe nobody’s coming, depending on what time of day it is,” Wegner said.

And while medical emergency calls increase during daytime hours, small departments with part-time or on-call EMS staff struggle increasingly to get to every call on time.

“Those are the very times that it is most difficult for departments to find those volunteers to drop what they’re doing and respond to a call,” Henken said. “The optimal solution to the challenge is to bite the bullet and to hire more full-time staff; at least have a mix of full-time, and part-time volunteers.”

Consolidation not always the answer

The Wisconsin Policy Forum report found that while department consolidation can address some of the issues for small Wisconsin fire and EMS departments, the solution often comes with additional problems.

It usually doesn’t offer financial savings in the short-term, the report said, and communities don’t always favor it as a solution.

“Due to a variety of circumstances, including geography, including tradition, including sometimes–unfortunately–the inability of certain communities to get along with one another on a wide range of issues, consolidation may not be in the cards,” Henken said.

Fire chiefs see it through a mixed lens: on one hand, consolidating departments can provide more staff needed to use the large amounts of equipment they have to maintain.

“We’re all struggling with staffing, so does it make sense for the city of Lake Mills to have three engines and a ladder truck when I struggle during the day to get one piece of equipment out?” Yandre asked.

On the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily help them with financial savings, Wegner said. They would still need to find the funds in an ever-constricted financial environment to staff more full-time people for that scenario.

Chiefs: Governor, legislature needs to act

According to the report, the state legislature holds the possible answers for some of the challenges that fire and EMS is facing in Wisconsin. Funding challenges are in part thanks to tax levy constraints that force departments to go to referendum and an overall stagnation of shared revenue.

“State government provides little direct financial support to local fire and EMS agencies in Wisconsin and limits the ability of municipalities to increase local tax resources to address their growing challenges,” the report’s press release stated. “Meanwhile, the most important form of state aid to municipalities–shared revenue–has been stagnant for years.”

In both cases, fire chiefs said the issue was one the state legislature should be fixing. First, chief Wegner said, fire and EMS services needed to be classified as essential services by the state.

“Our legislature and our governor needs to do something different from what they’ve been doing,” Wegner said.

Amid a statewide labor shortage, it now takes real money to attract and retain his staff. “We’ve had a lot of chatter. We’ve had a lot of talk. We don’t see a lot of action.”

Photojournalist Brian Mesmer contributed to this report.