Staffing shortages, increased call volume means extra work for West Bend firefighters

NOW: Staffing shortages, increased call volume means extra work for West Bend firefighters

WEST BEND, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Fire departments across the state of Wisconsin and the country are having to respond to an increased number of calls while many are dealing with staffing shortages.

The five-year stretch between 2016 and 2020 saw a call volume increase of just over 12% for the West Bend Fire Department. In 2021, department members say units from the three stations in the city responded to roughly 4,800 calls.

"We're everything to everybody. We're everything from picking up somebody who fell on the ice to major structure fires and everything in between, from hazmat to dive rescue," explained Chief Gerald Kudek. "It just seems that the more people that need us, the more we're willing to do; but we need those resources to do it."

The resources needed include additional firefighters to help cover shifts and funding to pay for those positions. According to Chief Kudek, both are in short supply.

"We've never seen anything like this," Chief Kudek said. "We used to be able to have a job opening and we would get 50, 60 applications for that one opening and we'd establish an eligibility list. Now, we have two or three openings and we're lucky if we get 10 applications."

The West Bend Fire Department currently has 40 firefighters on staff. Two recent studies conducted in the fall of 2021, one for the city and one for the West Bend Fire Fighters Union Local 2025, suggest that the city needs to hire between 15 and 18 additional firefighters to be fully staffed.

The department has had over 170 'Group Calls' so far in 2022, meaning individuals are called in on their off days to staff the stations while other units are out responding to calls.

"The stresses are exponentially going up, and quite frankly, the only way we can remedy it is more personnel," said Local 2025 President Steve Inhof, who is also a lieutenant and paramedic with the department. "There's a long road ahead of us. As much as I would love to snap my fingers and make the problem go away, it doesn't happen in your personal life, it's not going to happen here."

Inhof says that the men and women at the station have, and will continue to answer the call to serve whenever needed, but the increased workloads can present challenges.

"Staffing shortages; it's not just the firefighters. It affects the constituents that we protect. It affects the day-to-day operations of the fire department, so it's a far-reaching impact," Inhof said. "I could not be any more proud of the brothers and sisters that I work with on a day-to-day basis. Is there an inconvenience when you get mandated in? Absolutely, but it's also an oath that we took and we take it seriously. We do, but it's having long-term effects."

According to Chief Kudek, the department is making efforts to recruit new members by visiting high schools and technical colleges, offering internship and ride-along opportunities and sending representatives to career fairs. He says the challenge is that other departments are doing the same thing to find a solution to the same issue.

"We're all trying to get the same pool of firefighters, or prospective firefighters," Chief Kudek said. "It's just getting to the point where we're all trying to steal from each other."

Chief Kudek encourages anyone with an interest in firefighting to reach out to their local station for more information on how to begin the process.

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