Village scrambles to bolster GFD staff

Fire chief’s concern with shortage of volunteer members prompts Public Safety Committee to explore cost options
By 
JOE POIRIER
Ozaukee Press Staff

The Grafton Fire Department is set to swear in its first full-time firefighter Sunday, July 15, but Fire Chief Bill Rice is concerned that position won’t be enough to make up for a shortage of volunteers in the department.

During the Public Safety Committee meeting on Tuesday, Rice proposed two staffing models to add several full-time firefighters and paramedics. 

Officials said the department has trouble maintaining personnel because of a growing shortage in daytime volunteers for weekend and evening shifts. 

Rice said his greatest challenge is finding volunteers for emergency medical services. 

“The toughest part for me is to get EMTs and paramedics that are willing to be available for multiple nights and weekends,” he said.

Rice outlined two staffing scenarios for hiring employees in 2019. The first option is to hire two additional firefighters or paramedics to create a skeleton crew, and the second plan calls for hiring five members who would ensure one ambulance is staffed around the clock.

According to Rice, a full-time firefighter works a 24-hour shift and is off for 48 hours.

“We have to go to the residents,” said committee member and Trustee Sue Meinecke, adding that she wants to take the issue to a referendum because of the impact on the village’s tax levy. “This is not an open checkbook.” 

According to Village Administrator Jesse Thyes, a variety of factors determine the cost of adding employees, including renegotiating the department’s service contract with the Town of Grafton and expected changes to the village’s insurance premiums.

“We want to make sure we don’t have any discrepancies between what numbers we’re looking at and what impact that would have on the tax levy,” Thyes said. “We’re really not in the position to give good numbers at this point.”

In November, the village budgeted half a year’s salary of $25,401 for the new firefighter position. 

Committee member Bob Wolf, who represents the town, said the Town Board would be in favor of adding additional employees.

“We’re dealing with lifesaving issues,” Wolf said.

The department currently uses employees from the public works and water utility departments as day-time firefighters, but it has been a challenge for them to respond to calls because of their primary job responsibilities, Rice said.

Last month, the village created an incentive policy for village employees to help the fire department starting in 2019, but Rice said he is skeptical that will solve the problem of covering all shifts. 

Consolidating services with neighboring departments was also discussed at the meeting. Rice said consolidation is a process that could take years, noting the North Shore Fire Department began studies in the 1970s and finally consolidated 1995.

“Consolidation doesn’t happen quickly,” Rice said.

The committee voted 4-1 to have village staff determine the cost of the two staffing scenarios, with Meinecke dissenting.

According to Rice, the reason behind the shortfall in volunteers is that people’s schedules are less flexible between work and family, as opposed to previous generations. 

There are approximately 60 volunteers with the fire department. However, last week five members left for full-time positions with other departments, Rice said.

As a contingency, Rice said, he relies on mutual aid from other fire departments in Ozaukee County to assist with emergency calls, which is common among other communities. 

In an effort to recruit more volunteers, the fire department has sent fliers to residents and advertised outside the village. 

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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.

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