Bruce Vander Veen, chief of the Sharon Fire/EMS Department, says many Walworth County communities are at a “crossroads” when it comes to funding emergency services.
Voters throughout the county will have a big say in what the future looks like through various referendums on the Nov. 3 ballot.
“We need to do something about this,” Vander Veen said. “Getting worse at this time is very real. And I think it’s very important that people understand. Even though it’s tough economic times, there’s never a perfect time to do this. Our need is real today, and we really can’t put this off.”
The villages and towns of Sharon, Darien and Walworth are seeking to exceed their levy limits to establish and maintain a third-party contract for full-time paramedic-level emergency medical services.
Vander Veen, who is on various committees related to emergency services, said the referendums have to pass in all communities to move the plan forward.
“I’m actually cautiously optimistic,” he said. “I think people will see the need. Our problem is that as fire departments we have not normally said that we’re having problems. And a lot of people just don’t know.”
The town of Darien is the only one of those municipalities to not have a question on the ballot because Vander Veen said the town already has the necessary finances.
Elkhorn, the town of Sugar Creek and the town of Geneva also have referendums seeking more funds “for the purpose of enhanced fire and emergency medical services.”
Elkhorn City Administrator James Heilman said last year that, “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.”
The departments in Walworth County and elsewhere have struggled with staffing and funding for some time now.
Vander Veen said if all the referendums are approved, the communities will decide on a name for the shared services.
After signing contracts with Metro Paramedic Services, residents could then expect to see more reliable service, he said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area, he said departments have seen recruitment drop to “almost nothing.”
“Who would want to do what we’re doing, right?” he asked.
In the last year, he said the call volume dropped off but has returned to more normal levels.
He said his department in Sharon has had 10 calls this year where it failed to have enough staff present and had to rely on mutual aid.
“That’s very concerning,” he said. “That’s a trend that has gotten worse in the last year.”
If the referendums pass, Vander Veen said personnel will respond to a call within 90 seconds. Currently, having a volunteer leave his job or home could take five or 10 minutes.
Additionally, he said the department is currently at an EMT basic level.
Staffing at a paramedic level—which will be the case if the referendums succeed—gives first responders more capabilities to improve health care.
Paramedics have more training and can dispense many more medications, he said. That is crucial for rural communities such as those in Walworth County because they are farther from hospitals than those near Janesville or Beloit.
The new paramedics would staff stations throughout Walworth County. Vander Veen said customers won’t know the difference as paramedics will be committed to this response area.
“It’s an economically viable plan. It’s cost effective. It’s operationally effective,” he said. “It’s a good plan.”