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Guest Editorial | How are volunteer fire departments in Washington County going to survive? | By Ron Naab

February 29, 2020 – Washington Co., WI – The issue of finding people to fill the boots of a firefighter or EMT is challenging. It is a societal issue. We are now in the mindset of what others can do for us and not what we can do for others. I have had conversations with younger generation.  Following is a post in response to the Slinger Fire Department asking for help over the weekend to dig you fire hydrants, when I suggest to an individual to join a fire department; “no thanks, time is all I have in this life and I don’t give that away for free.”  How do we change that mind set?

How did we create a generation that is not willing to sacrifice their time, their skills, or their talents to help others?  I had a mentor tell me once, “Your kids are what you make them.  The apples don’t fall far from the tree.”

I have read many times that our Wisconsin fire service is made up of approximately 78% volunteers.  These individuals that are willing to leave a kid’s birthday party, get up at 3 a.m. for a fire call that could last until 8 a.m. and still go to work, are willing to give 2 to 3 nights a month to be trained and hone their skills or are willing to spend hours to design and purchase and verify construction of a new piece of apparatus or building.

WHY!! Because of pride, pride in their membership to an elite group of individuals that all love helping others.

Pride in that they have successfully completed 100+ classroom hours to become a Firefighter 1 or 180 hours to become an EMT.  Plus, to become a IV Tech is another 100 hours. They have pride in the fact you were able to help someone at a very terrifying or tragic time in their lives so they can “see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

After the educational requirements and training we still ask our members to give up hours to help raise money to buy equipment.  How many other government or quasi-government entities must do fund raisers to purchase their trucks, or their equipment?

We expect our firefighters to enter building made of lightweight construction filled with furniture made of petroleum-based products, that burn hotter and faster.

Firefighters pride in their department maybe because of the equipment or the building they have for a fire station that was purchased with fund raising dollars and taxpayers supported dollars.

Former Chief Chuck Himsel of Mount Horeb Fire-Rescue stated once to his fire district board, “We have 50 people respond to any type of call at any time of day, on any given day of the year for NO money.  All we as a department and as a community have to offer is pride.  Pride in who we are, what we do and what we have.  So, if the members want a bell on a fire truck or an area to have an antique apparatus on display, this is nominal to the dollars we would have to pay them for each call.

We as fire departments and as communities need to look at ways of attracting younger generation members of our community so they will get involved.  Our department, Allenton, has had an Explorers Club, their other departments that have similar program where 8th graders through seniors can be a part of the fire department to be part of training and do support duties at an emergency scene. These programs have been very successful, it takes a group of adult fire-rescue members to be willing to support this group.

Another factor that makes operating and funding a department in today’s world is the cost of equipping a firefighter with a helmet, with a hood, firefighting and rescue gloves, turnout coat and pants, boots along with a pager to alert them.  Total cost is approximately $2,500 plus.  This does not include Self Contained Breathing Apparatus [air packs] we are at $6,500+ and the cost go on.  A single-axle truck to haul water is in the range of $275,000.  In 1973 you could do this vehicle for less than $13,000.

Our community governments and businesses need to be supportive of our volunteer and paid-on-call emergency services. There was a time that employers would allow their employees to respond to calls with NO dock in pay.  NOW we have a difficult time getting these entities to allow them to respond.  One reason is the owners are not residents of the community.  There was a time that local municipalities allowed fire departments to have a few extra things so as to pay wages.  I understand tight budgets, we need to be creative to get businesses to support our volunteers.  We need to work with state legislators and those representing us in Washington, D.C.  I believe that valid avenue to help get people involved and to support our volunteer fire-rescue squads is having a tax credit for employers based on allowing employees to go on calls.  We need to get tax credits for firefighters and emergency medical responders for time being served, training and responding.

This year alone there are probably 15 bills that would have supported our firefighters.  Some of these bills introduced were to give tax credits to volunteers, with more years of service the greater the credit.  The Length of Service Award changed to Service Award Program which was funded by local governments and the state was changed to allow younger, less time served firefighters and EMTs to cash out.  The payout was raised but the funds were not set aside this some that retired this year are still waiting for funds.  There was a bill to increase the penalties for those that caused bodily harm or death and accident scene.  There was a bill to help get timely reimbursement to those departments that are involved in Wisconsin’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force.   WHAT HAPPENED TO THESE BILLS?  They died at a committee chairman’s desk or at the legislator in-charge of the assembly or senate.

In my opinion, our state and our federal government need to get involved!  We need to have representatives that will follow through and not make promises and not to follow through to get the legislation completed.

 

Ronald J. Naab is President of the Gear Up Foundation and a 55 year member of the Allenton Volunteer Fire Department

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