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Departments fighting fires and staffing issues

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Kevin Hoffman
April 18, 2011
— The sluggish economy gets blame for a long list of troubles.

Add fire department staffing to the list.


Before the economy tanked, many private employers understood when volunteer firefighters had to leave their day jobs to respond to emergencies.


Now, those businesses are focusing on their own financial health. That makes it harder for fire departments, especially those staffed entirely by volunteers, fire officials said.


“With the economy the way it is and employers having to count on fewer people, they didn’t want to let them go on calls,” Lake Geneva Fire Chief Brent Connelly said.


Connelly said his department isn’t among those scrambling to find volunteers, but staffing the department during the day has been a challenge.


Most chiefs struggle to find volunteers for early shifts starting at about 6 a.m. Connelly said he solved that problem by using a paid-on-premise program, which pays firefighters to be at the station, to cover shifts when other personnel aren’t available.


The 40-member department handles more than 1,000 calls each year.


Fire departments in Wisconsin and across the nation say calls are on the rise while the number of volunteer firefighters is steadily declining. The disparity is forcing fire chiefs everywhere to add incentives to find qualified help.


“There are a few that are all right, but there’s clearly a lot of them having difficulty with staffing volunteer fire departments during the day,” said John Baus, president of the Wisconsin Fire Chiefs Association and chief at Menomonie’s fire department.


“A lot of people are working out of town, and more people used to work in their communities, and more employers used to be understanding and more willing to release employees to respond to fires,” Baus said.


The Whitewater Fire Department serves six townships in addition to the city, fielding more than 1,600 calls each year. Though it covers about 140 square miles in Walworth, Jefferson and Rock counties, Chief Don Gregoire said he’s able to maintain a crew at all hours.


The fire department carries a $155,000 operating budget and receives from the city about $10,000 for training. It hasn’t received a budget increase in eight years.


“We’re a resume-building (department) for a lot of guys, and I know that,” Gregoire said.


“From top to bottom, I have no full-time employees.”


Volunteer departments in Walworth County and around Wisconsin are better off than some.


Nationally, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped 10 percent since 1984, reaching a five-year low of 812,150 in 2009, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. The same report showed fire departments in 2009 handled more than 26.5 million calls—the most ever.


Incentives

Fire chiefs have ideas about how to bring help back to the stations, and discussions already are underway. Baus said he met with representatives in Washington, D.C., last week to pitch some ideas.


Ideas include tax breaks for volunteers or something as simple as a coat or annual appreciation dinner to honor those who don’t receive a stipend, Baus said. He’s also working to secure grants to support recruitment and retention.


The state Legislature in recent years passed measures giving volunteers more flexibility. In 2008, lawmakers passed a bill exempting some income from federal taxing. Last year, two bills passed: one preventing employers from disciplining volunteers who return late to work after responding to an emergency, and another allowing worker’s compensation for those injured while responding to or returning from a call in a private vehicle.


It’s not guaranteed additional incentives would help. Wolfgang Nitsch, chief of the Fontana Fire Department, said most families are concentrating on just paying mortgages or putting food on the table.


His department staffs anywhere from 25 to 30 volunteers, which he said is a “tad bit on the low side.”


“At the moment, it’s not like we’re overflowing with personnel, but we’re certainly able to respond,” Nitsch said. “It certainly can’t hurt to throw incentives in there.”


Training cost

The tough economic climate has tightened fire department budgets, too, causing them to be more selective in recruitment.


Volunteers require a minimum of 60 hours of training, which can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000, Connelly said. Departments typically foot the cost, and that means more are now searching for volunteers who already have completed the mandatory courses.


The National Volunteer Fire Council estimates training plus equipment costs an average of $27,000 per firefighter.


“As time goes on, with the economy the way it is, we’re going to be asked to cut budget and look for ways to save money that we haven’t in the past,” Connelly said. “Sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemy because no matter what we’re given to function with, we always make it work.”



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