Local fire departments aren’t able to rely on volunteers like they used to.
So Elkhorn and other nearby communities that use the same fire department are eyeing referendums for November 2020 to address staffing problems and the department’s sustainability.
James Heilman, finance director for Elkhorn and the soon-to-be city administrator, said the city is running up against tax levy limits with how it currently funds fire and emergency medical services.
“We’ve expended as much as we can within our constraints to provide the service that we have today,” he said. “But I can unequivocally say that the service we provide today is not adequate, or is not something that I will just accept. We need more. We need better protection than what we’re offering today. But we’re doing the best we can.”
Paratech, a private ambulance service, provides paid-on-premises staff members to Elkhorn for certain hours of coverage—the busy parts of the day between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. But Heilman said volunteers are needed for calls, such as structure fires, and during other hours.
Elkhorn’s fire department also contracts to serve the towns of Sugar Creek, Lafayette and Geneva. Heilman said those communities provided their input through the Fire Department Advisory Steering Committee, which met June 13.
The group is scheduled to meet again at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 25, at the Elkhorn Fire Department.
Heilman said there aren’t many options aside from a referendum. It is still early in the process, so details such as dollar amounts have not yet been determined, he said.
But he was emphatic about the need to address the problem.
“Again, when the fire whistle goes off, someone is expected to respond, and I need to make sure that that happens, without doubt and without fail,” he said. “This is public safety. This is not whether or not we want to have a park with a playground set or a pavilion. This is about somebody in need of public safety services, and that has to be provided without fail.”
Volunteers don’t have the same ability to leave their job at a moment’s notice, which was easier with factory jobs, Heilman said.
For that reason, he said the city needs to be proactive instead of sitting back and waiting for an incident for which it is not adequately staffed to occur.
“We need to look for another solution, because these are public safety issues,” Heilman said. “They are fire protection. They are life protection … We need to make sure we can provide a better service.”
Sharon’s fire chief, Bruce Vander Veen, is part of a county committee tasked with providing recommendations on viable options for fire departments. He’s not surprised Elkhorn is looking at a referendum and supports them in those efforts.
He said the solutions will be at the local government level, not at the county level.
Fire departments in Sharon, Walworth and Darien are in the early stages of “some form of joint staffing,” he said.
Heilman said as the process moves on, he is going to offer presentations to various local groups and be available for questions from the public. He said he will do his best to get his point across—the city needs help to make sure the department is staffed enough to do its job well.
“That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.