Walworth County Government Center

Amid a statewide shortage of firefighters and emergency medical technicians, a Walworth County study committee is researching alternative options for its strained departments.

The committee comprises 12 members, including city administrators and fire chiefs. Members have met about once a month since March 2017.

The committee’s formation comes as rural communities in Wisconsin grapple with a dwindling supply of firefighters and EMTs. The Legislature assembled an ad hoc committee in 2016 to study the shortage, and it recommended a host of bills in 2017.

County Administrator Dave Bretl said some departments in Walworth County are feeling the tension. Membership for some has dipped, he said, and the labor pool is becoming increasingly smaller.

Municipalities have their own fire and EMS departments. The county is barred from providing those services, but it spearheaded the committee to act as a facilitator and bring stakeholders together, Bretl said.

The Walworth County committee is purely advisory. Among the solutions discussed have been improvements to the dispatch center and consolidating departments, said Bruce Vander Veen, chief of the Sharon Fire and Rescue Department and member of the committee.

In the past 15 years, Vander Veen said the Sharon department has seen paid on-call membership drop from 45 people to about 30. Membership is steady right now, he said, and the department could fall to about 20 members and still maintain adequate service.

“Our struggle will be in the future,” Vander Veen said. “Currently, we have a fair number of self-employed people. As time goes by, we will have less of them.”

There are 16 fire and EMS departments in Walworth County, Vander Veen said. Lake Geneva, Walworth, Elkhorn, Fontana, East Troy and Bloomfield have some form of full-time staff. The rest are primarily staffed with paid on call members.

Vander Veen said some municipalities have indicated they’re open to consolidating departments—meaning they could split resources and costs—but others have shied away. He said there’s a disparity between some municipalities in the amount of calls for service.

Some departments run 50 to 75 calls a year, but others may run up to 3,000, Vander Veen said.

Bretl said there are multiple factors that contribute to shrinking membership in rural departments. Compensation for on-call firefighters and EMTs generally isn’t high. Some may work outside the town they live in, and employers may not allow volunteers to leave work for a call, he said.

It’s unknown how long the committee will continue meeting. The committee likely will assemble a report with suggestions at its conclusion, Bretl said. One recommendation could be that municipalities need to go to referendum and increase property taxes to fund full-time staff or utilize private services.

“It’s a tough issue,” Bretl said. “The community has been really well-served by these volunteers, but that might not be sustainable in the long haul.”

Vander Veen said he thinks there will be some results because of the committee.

He said several departments already have entered discussions to consider staffing an ambulance and sharing the costs while maintaining a paid on call or volunteer presence.

“It’s a real tight rope to walk ... I do feel that we’re working our way through these problems little by little,” Vander Veen said.

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