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Lack of volunteer firefighters is putting major stress on Wisconsin's fire departments

The best fire department response times happen when fire and EMS are sitting in the fire department waiting for a call. Germantown recently cut response in half by hiring more full-time staff to make sure someone is always around.

That is not an option for most departments in our state. Most are strictly volunteer and those volunteer departments are desperate for help.

“Back in, we’ll say, the Andy Griffith Days, Floyd the barber locked the barbershop and everyone ran to the fire station and they went to the fire.” Said Germantown Fire Chief Gary Weiss.

We still have volunteer fire and the model hasn’t changed. Volunteer first responders have to leave wherever they are, come to the fire station and then head to the call.

“Truthfully, there are more and more people who live here, who do not work here,” said Union Grove Yorkville fire Chief Tom Czerniak. “And as a result of not working here, they’re not available sometimes during the day, sometimes at night.”

That lack of people available to volunteer is putting major stress on Wisconsin’s fire departments. 80% of them are predominately volunteer.

In our area, of the 159 fire departments, 21 are completely full or part time. The rest (138), 87%, are either volunteer or some combination of volunteer, paid on-call or full/part time.

Those volunteer departments are facing a major staffing shortage.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the younger generation.” Said State Representative and Kewaskum volunteer firefighter Jesse Kremer. “Right now, they don’t really have a sense of wanting to necessarily belong to organizations. You see the Legions, the VFWs, the Lions and even the fire departments hurting for younger folks to get in the door.”

Last session in Madison, a legislative council study committee on fire and EMS shortages proposed some solutions including tax credits for training sessions and materials and an easier-to-access retirement fund. Governor Walker has them in his budget.

“Now, these aren’t silver bullets. But they are something we can give,” said Rep. Kremer.

Until they find a silver bullet, it’s constant and aggressive recruitment.

“If you’re down here in Racine County near Union Grove, come and see us. We need the help,” said Chief Czerniak.

Next week is National EMS Week and the Union Grove Yorkville Fire Department has a big recruitment push. They’ll be at Piggly Wiggly, putting on demonstrations and hoping to attract some new volunteers.

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