Janesville46.4°

Back to business in Edgerton

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Stacy Vogel
December 8, 2007
— The atmosphere at the Edgerton Fire Station seemed to be “business as usual” Monday.

About a dozen volunteers ran through the morning session of the department’s weekly practice. Department officers shot the breeze with Jim Linsley, chairman of the Edgerton Fire Protection District Commission, who said he’d stopped by to drop off some papers.


But three unfamiliar faces pointed to the significance of the day: Mark Backes, working the first full-time, paid shift for the district in more than four years, and two reporters there to cover the event.


“Everybody’s kind of in the dark about what’s going on,” Backes said. “We’re just taking it one day at a time.”


A casual observer might not realize that Backes hadn’t worked at the station since 2003, when the district eliminated its three paid, full-time positions. The employees—Backes, Arnie Lund and Ken Crandall—were reinstated this week following a lengthy court battle.


Backes still knows most of the volunteers, and he certainly hasn’t forgotten his way around the station.


But some things have changed. The department has bought several pieces of new equipment over the last four years, including two first-responding fire engines.


Although the district classifies the employees’ jobs as “drivers/dispatchers,” they currently are not allowed to drive the trucks, operate the pumps or fight fires alongside the volunteers because their training isn’t up to date.


So far, they’ve kept themselves busy cleaning and maintaining the station and equipment, Backes said.


“There’s windows to wash; there’s floors to clean,” Backes said. He also cleaned out lockers, brewed coffee and started the truck for the volunteers when a call came in during his 48-hour shift Sunday and Monday, he said.


As of Monday afternoon, Backes had only taken one ambulance call and no fire calls.


The weather kept Lund busier on his Tuesday and Wednesday shifts. The department received two calls Tuesday and three Wednesday morning, he said.


Lund cleared the station’s parking lot and driveway during and after the five inches of snow that fell Tuesday night.


Volunteers have performed such jobs over the past four years, and they will continue to pitch in with cleaning and maintenance tasks in the coming weeks, said Lt. Adam Walton, public information officer with the department.


“Nobody really knows what’s going to happen,” Walton said. “If these positions go away again, and we’ve changed everything, then we’ve got to change everything back.”


Last week, Assistant Fire Chief Ryan Beckwith told The Janesville Gazette he thinks the volunteers have done a fine job performing the employees’ duties and he was frustrated the three men were coming back.


But several volunteers said this week they’re happy the employees are back. They think the employees will take some of the burden off the volunteers, especially if they can eventually respond to calls, they said.


“Since those guys left, they have pushed more and more and more of the duties onto the volunteers, where it ends up more like a full-time job than a volunteer-type basis,” said John Dohner Jr., who has volunteered with the district since 1993.


Dohner believes the volunteers are split about 50-50 between those who support the employees coming back and those who don’t. He thinks those who support the employees are afraid to speak up for fear of retribution from department leaders who don’t want the employees back, he said.


Outgoing Fire Chief John Gietzel, who announced his resignation this week, said firing the employees in the first place was short-sighted.


“Our call volume has doubled and almost tripled since those guys have left,” he said. “We have a manpower shortage during daytime fire calls.”


No matter their opinions, volunteers have to work with the employees and focus on serving the residents, Walton said.


“Attitudes and opinions are left at the door,” he said.


“The bottom line is public safety, and if anyone disagrees with that, they’re in the wrong building.”



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