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Walworth County searches for fire and EMS answers

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Sunday, November 12, 2017

ELKHORN--Often surveys confirm what people already believe.

That's certainly the case with a recent survey of Walworth County fire and EMS officials and municipal government leaders.

The surveys returned in late October reveal that public safety is expensive, complicated and struggling to change.

Darien Fire Chief Justin Schenke acknowledged that many of the issues raised in the survey aren't new. Paying for services, finding and keeping volunteers, the advisability of consolidation—all those issues have been mulled for years in Walworth County.

“We're kind of in an awkward stage of growth, kind of like an adolescence,” Schenke said of the fire and EMS services in Walworth County.

Calls for service have gone up, and the population has increased, but those changes haven't been significant enough to merit going to full-time paid firefighters and EMTs like larger cities have, Schenke said.

At the same time, volunteer numbers have leveled out or are decreasing, forcing some municipalities to contract with an ambulance service for emergency medical services or at least one paid, full-time, onsite firefighter, as The Gazette reported earlier.

Here's one of many examples: On Tuesday, voters in Fontana will go to the polls to decide if they want to increase their taxes to pay for a full-time firefighter/EMT at the station. If approved, taxes on a home assessed at $250,000 would increase about $57 a year, according to the Friends of Fontana Fire and Rescue.

Another example: Last year, the village of Walworth had to put $70,000 into its budget for full-time EMS service, Village President Tom Connelly Jr. said. They didn't have a choice, he said.

Also last year, Elkhorn added $506,000 to its budget to add full-time staff to its department. At that time, Elkhorn Fire Chief Rod Smith said, his department still relies strongly on paid, on-call staff but need to add the full-time staff to keep the public safe.

SURVEY SAYS

The survey was developed by the Walworth County Fire and EMS committee. The group, which held its first meeting in March, consists of representatives from fire departments, elected officials and municipal staff.

At its first meeting, Walworth County Administrator David Bretl told the committee that departments have been concerned about service levels for a number of years. Municipal officials were concerned about how to provide services given a declining pool of volunteers available for fire and EMS duties.

The survey consisted of separate sets of questions for fire and EMS personnel and for government officials.

One question asked respondents how they would measure if the study was successful.

Responses from fire and EMS officials ranged from the practical to the cynical.

The Fontana department suggested the county collect additional sales tax to supplement the cost of EMS services.

The town of Delavan EMS said the study would be a success if it “accomplished any positive outcomes.”

The Walworth department, too, seemed skeptical about the study's ability to bring together entrenched factions. For it, the study would be a success if it “actually accomplishes something and all involved come together and agree on recommendations.

Government officials from two cities, 13 towns and eight villages responded to the survey.

The city of Delavan was looking for “ways municipalities can effectively cooperate to maintain and enhance services,” and “a countywide dispatch system” that “allows/requires that the closet unit that can provide the level of service required for the call is dispatched.”

The survey also asked:

-- If departments would be willing to consider mergers or consolidations as options for improved services.

Among 14 respondents from fire and EMS departments, 12 said yes, one said no and one said “maybe.”

Among muncipal officials, 15 said yes, seven said they already do share resources and one said the question wasn't applicable to them.

-- If departments would be willing to share resources with other departments.

Ten respondents said yes, none said no, and four indicated that they already do.

-- If departments believe consolidation would work.

Fire chiefs aren't sure.

All of the departments are struggling with lack of volunteer staff, according to the survey. Combining two departments and having both respond to calls would mean increasing the amount of time for both sets of volunteers.

One chief described this as “burning them up, burning them out.”

Schenke said that his department already had a strong "automatic" aid agreement with the Sharon Fire Department. When either fire department is paged for a structure fire, the other department responds automatically. 

That relationship was built over time, Schenke said.

Connelly said mergers often "make perfect sense on paper but don't take into (consideration) the human factor."

Some departments are home to three generations of volunteers, and they take pride in having an independent department, Connelly said.

Most volunteer fire departments operate as independent agencies. No government agency can impose consolidation.

Among government officials, Kurt Zipp from the Village of Darien said he preferred “coordination more than mergers or consolidations.”

Frank Taylor from the Town of LaGrange said “neighboring communities are having the same issue—being short of help. Merging won't solve anything.”

-- What departments believe are the major challenges to continuing to provide fire services.

Eleven respondents mention staffing or personnel. One mentioned the increase in demand and another answered that building a new facility was a main challenge.

When asked the same question about EMS service, 12 respondents cited staffing or personnel. Money and the volume of calls also were listed as issues.

Government officials with the village of East Troy expressed concerns about the lack of professionalism that leads to a “good old boys club mentality.” The village also expressed concerns about financial transparency.

-- If dispatching can be improved to enhance service response.

Five respondents left the question blank or responded no.

Other respondents suggested a consolidated dispatch center, a dispatch center dedicated to only fire and EMS and increasing the professionalism of the dispatch center so all calls are handled the same way.

Walworth County has four dispatch centers.

The Walworth County Sheriff's Office does the majority of dispatching, but the cities of Delavan, Whitewater and Lake Geneva all have their own dispatch centers. In addition, all cellphone 911 calls go to sheriff's office. If a cellphone call originates in the city of Delavan, the Walworth County dispatch answers and then transfers the call to Delavan.

It can get confusing, said Sharon Fire Chief Bruce Vanderveen.

For example, if you are in the village of Darien and call 911 for police, you will be transferred from Walworth County dispatch to the city of Delavan. That's because the city of Delavan provides police service for the village. If the Delavan police officer arrives on scene and discovers an ambulance is needed, he or she would call the Delavan dispatch who would contact Walworth County—because Walworth County dispatches Darien Fire and EMS.

The fire and EMS committee will meet again at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Walworth County Government Center. Agenda items include a second discussion of the survey results and a look at an upcoming survey of residents.



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