Schommer says village should follow lead of private sector, allow workers to respond to fire calls
Facing an uphill struggle to keep his department fully staffed, Fredonia Fire Chief Brian Schommer wonders why the village doesn’t do more to ensure that new employees also serve as volunteer firefighters.
Schommer told trustees at the June 18 Village Board meeting he is frustrated that public works employees are not expected to join the fire department.
That frustration was reflected in a letter he sent to the board after a recent DPW hiring.
“I write this letter to you, trying to figure out why this community cannot try to assist in strengthening the membership of the Fredonia Fire Department by hiring department members for its DPW positions,” Schommer wrote.
“Again, two fire department members recently applied for an opening and neither could get, at the minimum, an interview?”
He said in the past, seven department members have applied for DPW positions and none have been hired.
“It is hard to scrounge ambulance drivers, especially during the day when we don’t have anybody around,” Schommer said.
Schommer said he has been told village officials are concerned about work getting done if DPW employees need to respond to daytime fire calls.
He said it is unfair that the village expects private employers to make their personnel available to answer fire calls, while not encouraging its own workers to serve with the department.
As an example, Schommer said a recent house fire drew 19 responding firefighters. Of that number, eight were allowed to leave their jobs with private employers to be available for the fire call and seven were self-employed.
“How can you, as a Village Board, continue to expect volunteer members of the department to leave their jobs (and their employers allow it), when you won’t hire someone to do this from your DPW?” Schommer asked.
The chief said he has been told officials feel there is too much red tape in figuring out how village employees should be paid if they are expected to respond to fire calls during their normal work days.
Village President Don Dohrwardt said in the past, the board was advised to be cautious in having employees serve on the fire department because of requirements imposed by the Internal Revenue Service.
“At one time, our attorney told us if we had an employee on the department we would have to pay them their full rate whenever they were on a call,” Dohrwardt said.
That could be costly, he said, if the firefighter needs to stay at a fire scene for an extended period to make sure a blaze doesn’t flare up after being extinguished.
“It is like a piece of Swiss cheese, trying to fill in all the holes. It was our attorney who warned us we could be opening a can of worms,” Dohrwardt said.
Schommer said other Ozaukee County communities have overcome the pay question, noting that the director of public works in the Village of Belgium is also the fire chief and two other DPW employees are also firefighters.
Similar overlaps in duty also occur in Saukville, Cedarburg and Thiensville.
He added that any new hires in the Grafton DPW are expected to be trained as firefighters and join the fire department. Those workers are allowed to respond to calls during work hours.
“It seems that this concept can work in other Ozaukee County municipalities, but not in Fredonia. Why?” Schommer asked.
Dohrwardt said the village has “no underlying agenda” to undermine the fire department, and promised to consider the issue the next time a new employee is hired.