Firefighters battle a barn fire in the town of Union, just west of Evansville, on July 14. Many rural fire departments face pressure to hire full-time employees as fewer people serve as volunteers. Local governments have been studying the problem, but they haven’t found any easy fixes.

Anthony Wahl

Rural Wisconsin is about to learn public safety has a price tag much larger than what it’s used to paying.

While considered as much a part of the rural landscape as corn and soybean fields, the state’s network of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians is falling apart.

Leaders of Walworth and Rock counties know there’s a problem. So does the state Legislature.

If government representatives agree maintaining public safety is a priority, they should begin passing laws and reorganizing departments to prevent a service crisis in rural areas in the coming years.

Walworth County recently conducted a survey indicating a willingness among municipal officials to consider consolidations and other arrangements to address declining volunteer numbers. Now is the time to begin those talks, which will undoubtedly hit snags as village and town officials jockey to protect their fiefdoms.

Small communities also will need to consider hiring full-time employees to fill gaps left by lost volunteers, which will require raising taxes unless municipalities can offset the costs through consolidations.

But these communities shouldn’t be expected to confront such challenges on their own. They need the Legislature’s help to transition from all-volunteer departments, though the Legislature should recognize completely abandoning the volunteer model is neither practical nor desirable.

Even if on the decline, volunteers will continue to have a place in rural fire and EMS departments, and the Legislature should create incentives to attract new and retain experienced volunteers.

The good news is a legislative committee formed in 2016 has studied this issue and made several recommendations targeting volunteer departments. Those recommendations include:

  • Extending the length of some training certifications from two to four years.
  • Increasing contributions to volunteers’ retirement accounts and lowering the required number of years, from 20 to 15, to become fully vested.
  • Giving tax credits to volunteers both for their time at work and in training and for non-reimbursable expenses.

Perhaps the most controversial idea is to allow municipalities to jointly create fire districts with the authority to levy a property tax or impose fees for services.

We can almost hear the moaning of taxpayers at the suggestion of having to pay more for public safety. Shouldn’t volunteers be doing their work strictly out of the goodness of their hearts? Why should they be compensated at all?

Well, if trends continue, taxpayers won’t be in a position to grumble. They’ll soon realize how lucky they were to have firefighters and EMTs doing dangerous work for essentially nothing.

If the state and municipalities neglect to incentivize volunteering, the alternative will be for municipalities to depend almost exclusively on full-time staff.

As it stands, hiring more full-time staff is inevitable. Volunteers are leaving departments for many reasons. Family obligations, out-of-town jobs, uncooperative employers and health risks have conspired against the volunteer model. Many people also feel less connected to their communities nowadays, and there’s no easy way to reverse these trends.

The solution is to devote more funding and resources to volunteer departments while preparing for a future that relies less on volunteers.

Taxpayers, meanwhile, should prepare their pocketbooks for a reality check. The bargain they’re getting today won’t last much longer.

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