OZAUKEE PRESS EDITORIAL: The future of small-town firefighting

No fire department in Ozaukee County or in the nearby surrounding area could by itself protect the people and property of its community in the event of a large-scale fire.

The mechanical and human resources of a single, small volunteer fire department are simply not adequate to deal with a raging conflagration.

And yet, lives, homes and businesses are well protected from fire in our communities. This is thanks to a rock-solid commitment to the time-honored principle of mutual aid. When disasters happen, nearby departments combine resources to become a powerful firefighting force.

This is not just verbiage from a theory, agreement or contract. It is a reality demonstrated time and again in this area.

When fire broke out in corn storage buildings on the farm owned by Daniel and David Dollert in the Town of Saukville in the pre-dawn hours of a freezing cold day in November, 10 fire departments (count them: Saukville, Fredonia, Waubeka, Newburg, Port Washington, Grafton, Cedarburg, Belgium, Thiensville and Mequon) responded to fight and extinguish the blaze.

The mutual-aid ethic that is so deeply ingrained in the history of our small-town fire departments became an issue in the contract dispute between the Newburg Fire Department and the Town of Saukville that played out last month.

When the Saukville Town Board balked at signing a contract calling for an increase in the charges for services provided by the Newburg Fire Department, Newburg Chief Mark Chesak asked the chiefs of other departments that provide fire protection to the Town of Saukville to sign a letter informing the Town Board that the departments had no obligation to respond to emergencies if the contract wasn’t signed.

Chesak, in a letter to the editor published in this issue of Ozaukee Press, states that the intent of the letter was not to threaten to withhold emergency services to gain contract negotiating leverage, but obviously the other chiefs didn’t see it that way.

All of the chiefs—representing Fredonia, Waubeka and the Village of Saukville—refused to sign the letter.

Fredonia Fire Chief Brian Weyker put the matter in clear perspective in an email to Chesak: “Morally I cannot leave some of my community neighbors, extended family and friends unprotected while these negotiations play out.”

The dispute is now on a back burner. The Saukville Town Board approved a 2019 contract at the payment rate in effect for the last three years with the intention of negotiating a new contract in the coming months. But the problem that drives the conflict—the rising cost of fire department services—is far from resolved.

Chesak says a higher payment is justified because department costs, including the price of sophisticated firefighting apparatus, “have increased tremendously.” There is no doubt he is right about the financial challenges facing fire departments.

A thoughtful letter to the editor from of a Town of Saukville resident in last week’s Press suggested a possible answer to the problem—combine the fire departments of northern and central Ozaukee County into one to serve the area.

Given the fierce identity pride that drives the esprit de corps of volunteer fire departments, combining departments probably has to be classified as a radical idea today.

But forces are at work—besides spiraling costs, there is the growing problem of attracting fire department members in communities where there is much competition for residents’ volunteer time—that will one day make discussion of that idea a conversation worth having.

The concept has been proven successful by the North Shore Fire Department, which provides firefighting services for seven small Milwaukee County communities.

In a recently published study, the Public Policy Forum found combining the fire protection resources of those communities into a single organization of paid professional firefighters has saved taxpayers money and improved service.

Besides the cherished independence of local volunteer departments, a number of technical factors, including insurance rating disparities, could complicate any move to combine services.

But logic and common sense have a place in the conversation too, which brings to mind the firefighting demands of the City of Port Washington and the Village of Saukville.

Port Washington needs a second fire station to service increasing development on the west side of the city.

Saukville needs a second fire station east of the prone-to-flooding Milwaukee River where commercial development is concentrated. So—hello!—why not share a fire station on Highway 33 that connects the communities?

It sounds like a no-brainer, but given the demonstrated reluctance of both communities to combine services of any kind, it’s also a non-starter.

Maybe one day that sort of smart expedient, perhaps even combining rural fire departments, will be deemed acceptable.

Until then, mutual aid pacts will remain essential.

Negotiating those agreements to make them fair to both providers and recipients of fire protection will always be a challenge but, it is hoped, never one that would justify treating emergency services as bargain chips.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494
 

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