Area chiefs call for full-time firefighters to deal with crisis

Port, Grafton officials say shortage of part-time paramedics has made it difficult to provide service
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington Fire Chief Mark Mitchell told the Police and Fire Commission on Monday that he’s having so much trouble ensuring there is a paramedic to staff the ambulance around the clock that he wants to hire as many as three full-time firefighter-paramedics.

A similar situation exists in Grafton, where Fire Chief Bill Rice brought on a full-time firefighter-paramedic in July. He is seeking to add another full-time employee in 2019 and a third in 2020, saying this is the only way to guarantee coverage.

“The fire department simply cannot guarantee 24/7/365 availability of volunteer personnel,” Rice told the Grafton Public Safety Committee in a memo, calling the matter “the primary public safety issue facing the village and town of Grafton.”

Mitchell told the Port Police and Fire Commission that the need is acute, noting that two of the department’s paramedics handle 90% of the calls. One of those two is currently on medical leave, he said, and the other will likely retire soon.

He’s had difficulty filling the holes in the schedule with one of those primary paramedics out, he said.

“To try and provide a community with a service as important as the ambulance, it requires a reliable, consistent workforce, which means full-time staffing,” Mitchell said. “Volunteer on-call services are the city’s best bargain, but now we’re to the point we need to add some guaranteed positions.”

The situation isn’t dire right now, although it may be in the future if nothing changes, he said, adding it is putting a strain on the rest of the crew.

The call volume has increased 70% over the last five years, Mitchell said, noting that in August the department handled 100 ambulance calls and 20 paramedic intercepts — the highest numbers since he’s been in Port.

Those numbers will only increase, he said, thanks to an aging population.

In Grafton, the numbers are increasing as well, Rice said. The department had its busiest month ever in August, when there were 160 calls, 118 of them ambulance calls.

Rice said having one full-time firefighter-paramedic has helped, ensuring the village has coverage one day out of every three since they work a 24-hour shift followed by three days off.

“Life’s gotten better for us,” he said. “It’s been a giant step forward, but we have to keep moving to get this covered.”

Because the position is a firefighter-paramedic, when there aren’t calls that person can help with other duties, he added.

He would ultimately like to hire nine full-time firefighter-paramedics, Rice said,  to provide a skeleton crew with three people on duty around the clock. 

In Port, a paramedic goes out with an emergency medical technician and a driver every time the ambulance goes out, Mitchell said. If a second call comes in while the first ambulance is out, two EMTs and a driver go out.

When the city first implemented its paramedic program, it was able to staff the ambulance with students who had recently graduated from school and were looking for experience, Mitchell said, but that pool “seems to have dried up.”

He noted that the city’s wages are lower than some in the area, which could be part of the problem.

Paramedics are currently paid $5.52 an hour while on call and $22.35 an hour while responding to calls, Mitchell said, while other communities are paying $10 an hour or more while on call.

To fill in the schedule while one of his primary paramedics is on leave, Mitchell said, he used overtime pay to entice people to fill the gaps.

Commission member Terry Tietyen suggested the city look at increasing the pay even as it seeks full-time workers.

“The city has got to do something,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer.”

Mitchell estimated it would cost the city about $70,000 in wages and benefits annually for a full-time firefighter-paramedic, which he said is in line with Grafton but lower than communities in the north shore.

Commission members backed Mitchell’s request, saying the need is critical and the issue important.

“It feels like a perfect storm, and we’re seeing the warning signs right now,” commission member Jennifer Clearwater said.

While Mitchell acknowledged his request to hire three full-time positions next year is “a pipe dream,” he said the city needs to move forward.

“I’d like three so we can have 24-7 coverage,” he said. “What we’re doing now is not a reliable way to do business. I don’t know how long we can hold off.”

Commission members suggested he seek one position in January and perhaps a second in July, with a third coming on line in 2020.

Both Rice and Mitchell said the situation isn’t unique to their departments or even the county.

“This is a problem all over the country,” Mitchell said.

“Volunteerism is changing rapidly,” Rice said, as people are pulled in different directions with work, family and other interests.

Rice added that the need for full-time positions doesn’t negate the work of the rest of the volunteer force.

“These are incredible human beings,” he said. “I appreciate our volunteers. They do an unbelievable job for next to nothing.”

But the days of an all-volunteer department are numbered, Rice predicted.

“Volunteer fire departments all over the country are being stre

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