Survey says ... Walworth County seeking fire and EMS answers

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Monday, April 17, 2017


ELKHORN—Walworth County Administrator David Bretl describes fire and EMS services as “very near and dear to people.”

This is an understatement that barely covers the facts. People are ferociously protective of their fire and EMS services. Even when it would make more fiscal and practical sense to consolidate equipment, budgets, administration or dispatch services, community members and volunteers resist.

So it's unclear what will come of a county-wide fire and EMS commission set up to examine and improve the way Walworth County municipalities deliver fire and EMS services.

“A lot of people have been questioning what will come out of this,” Bretl said. “One thing is we (the county) are not going to take things over. The county is not in the fire and EMS business.”

The commission met for the first time March 23, and one the first decisions it made was to put together a survey.

“We wanted to see what the needs and concerns are out there,” Bretl said.

The concerns are as varied at the municipalities, but overall, fire and EMS departments are concerned about:

-- Volunteer numbers. For decades, small municipalities and rural towns have relied on volunteers to provide fire and EMS services. That model isn't working anymore.

At the committee's first meeting, Sharon Fire Chief Bruce Vander Veen said EMS was in trouble.

“EMS, in my opinion, in Walworth County is basically on the edge of coming off the tracks,” Vander Veen said. “It's not due to medical direction or anything like that. It's that there's a small group of people that are overworked and underpaid and just running out of gas.”

Firefighters need more training than ever before, and it's difficult to find volunteers who have the time for it.

Basic emergency medical technician training requires about 180 hours of classroom work.

Then, too, not many employers are willing to let people go in the middle of the day to run off to a fire or EMS call.

Finally, many residents commute to work and are not in the community during the day to respond to calls.

All of those trends are becoming more problematic.

In a 2015, Delavan City Administrator Denise Pieroni told her city council “the long-term viability of a system that relies on volunteers 24/7, even for fire, is questionable.”

-- The cost of EMS services. Because of the challenge of getting volunteers, many towns and villages hire private companies to provide full- or part-time ambulance services. A small portion of those costs are covered by the patient. The majority of costs are borne by the municipalities.

Contracting with established fire departments isn't cheap, either.

Town of Whitewater Chairman Lowell Hagen said his town pays $50,000 in “stand-by” fees to the city of Whitewater.

Then, each fire or EMS call costs $900. Often, those costs can be passed on to customers. he said.

But if a person from out of state gets an ambulance bill and doesn't pay it, the cost is borne by the town.

-- Everybody wants their own stuff.

Even the smallest cities and villages want stations.

“The tough thing is egos,” Vander Veen said at the meeting. “The amount of money spent on apparatus and stations, and the duplications due to borders really has to stop … Municipalities want to have their names on the side of the truck. That's something we're going to have to get over.”

The challenge is how to do that.

County board member Ken Monroe said it took about five years to form a joint Genoa City and town of Bloomfield Fire Department.

“There was a lot of fighting, and I mean fighting,” said Monroe at the meeting. “One night, we had the majority of firefighters come in front of us saying they didn't want to join another fire department. They wanted their own equipment and so on. We lost a lot of firefighters—there was a lot of egos there.”

Some of the firefighters did return once they saw “it wasn't too bad,” Monroe said.

During the county commission's March 23 meeting, a variety of other issues were raised, including response times, the severity of calls, the number of calls,

Out of this discussion came the decision to develop the survey.

The survey will go to fire and EMS personnel and government officials, Bretl said.

“We want to see what the needs and concerns are,” Bretl said.

The committee wants to do individual interviews, rather than mailing paper surveys.

“There would be a lot of benefits from doing interviews,” Bretl said.

The survey might not cover all the issues. In addition, different departments are facing different challenges. Finally, by talking with people rather than sending out a survey, the commission is more likely to get buy-in from personnel and volunteers.

A subcommittee met April 7 to begin formulating survey questions. They will meet again Monday to finish their work.

On April 20, the fire and EMS commission will meet again to decide how to proceed with the survey.

This story has been changed to clarify the meaning of a quote.

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