Area Communities Struggle With How to Provide Emergency Services

By Al Stanek
Whitewater Banner volunteer staff

Whitewater is searching for a solution to problems providing Emergency Medical Services (EMS) because of increasing service demands, higher costs and the decreasing number of available volunteers. It appears to share that problem with neighboring communities.

The City’s current arrangement with Whitewater Fire Department, Incorporated (WFD, Inc.) has been under review in closed door sessions for several months. The largely volunteer organization last year provided over 1600 calls for medical services averaging over four calls per day.

WFD Inc. voted earlier this month to issue a “Letter of Intent” indicating their interest in both Fire and EMS functions becoming city operations, citing the difficulty of recruiting part-time Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) along with a dwindling number of paid on-call volunteers. That change would likely increase costs considerably. WFD, Inc. is funded by a roughly $250,000 contribution from the City of Whitewater, contracts with surrounding communities and fundraising. Its annual operating budget has been roughly $1 million.

In Fort Atkinson the ‘Jefferson County Daily Union’ reports that the city will be scheduling a referendum in April to authorize hiring cross-trained EMTs/Firefighters along with additional police officers. They currently contract with a private EMS provider. Communities like Fort and Whitewater that take on expanded services without a positive vote on a referendum authorizing the additional costs face a likely financial penalty in the form of reduced state “shared revenue.”

In nearby Milton, ‘The Gazette’ reports that the Fire Department intends to formally pursue merging with the Edgerton Fire Protection District. They had been in talks with the City of Janesville. The proposed merger would include the Towns of Harmony, Johnstown and Lima. Both Johnstown and Lima currently have services agreements with Whitewater’s WFD, Inc.

Milton, like Fort Atkinson, is in the process of formalizing a contract with a communications firm to prepare the required referendum and provide advice on how successful referendums have been conducted.

WFD, Inc. today provides fire and EMS services to the Jefferson County Townships of Cold Spring and Koshkonong and the Walworth County Town of Richmond along with the two Rock County communities that are approaching Edgerton in partnership with Milton. They also maintain mutual aid agreements with other nearby communities.

“The ability of communities to provide an appropriate level of fire and emergency services is in jeopardy and may soon necessitate an emergency response…”, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum (WPF). The report indicates that over 92% of Wisconsin’s fire departments are volunteer or “mostly volunteer.”

WFD, Inc. is currently advertising to fill several paid “on premise” part-time EMT positions whose wage rate will increase to $22 per hour from the previous $18 per hour rate. “We are in a very competitive field,” explained EMS Assistant Fire Chief Ashley Vickers.

The WI Policy Forum report references a state EMS Association analysis that “even with higher rates of pay staffing shortages are a problem at most departments.” Part-time positions generally do not provide the full array of benefits that highly trained EMTs often consider important in making employment decisions.

The report also points out that Wisconsin local governments’ reliance on “shared revenue” compounds the problem. “Shared revenue” is often the only source of supplemental funding for municipal services that are not tied to an existing state program. Fire and EMS services fall into that category. The “proportional share” of communities’ annual expenditures for Fire and EMS have been “lagging” according to the WPF report. The report states that “Fire/Ambulance spending is starting to trend down” as a percent of total community budgets as the costs of other services increase.

The WPF report points out that long-term solutions that could ultimately result in changes to service areas will require careful planning that “could take years to effectuate.” “In the shorter term,” the report concludes that “… greater financial assistance from the state or adjustments to financial constraints on local governments could be helpful.”

The City of Whitewater’s reaction to the WFD, Inc. proposal is likely to be a subject for the February 1 Common Council meeting..

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