County aims to come to the rescue with EMS grants

Committee clears way for municipalities to apply for money to hire paramedics, alleviate staffing crisis
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Ozaukee County communities can begin to apply for grants to fund additional paramedics, since the county’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday approved a grant application form — a first step in solving what officials have termed a crisis in emergency services throughout the county.

But Rick Nelson, chairman of the county committee, said he fears that not every community will take advantage of the funding.

“I’ve already heard some people say we might not apply,” Nelson said after the meeting. “I’m shocked. I think everyone should apply, but I don’t think it’s a guarantee.”

One community that’s likely to apply is Port Washington, where the Police and Fire Commission last month urged the Common Council to do just that.

“I certainly hope the city applies for the grant so we can fund at least one more paramedic,” Commission Chairman Jim Biever said Tuesday. “Everyone understands it’s a Band-Aid solution. It’s going to get you through three years. At that point, you hope smart minds are going to be able to come up with a way to fund these positions for good.”

Port Mayor Ted Neitzke said Tuesday the city will absolutely apply for a grant to fund paramedics.

“There’s no doubt we’re going to participate,” he said. “It’s good to see there’s some light at the end of the tunnel on this issue.”

Neitzke said he doesn’t know when the Common Council will discuss the issue, nor how many paramedics the city will seek to add to its roster.

Ald. Dan Benning, Common Council president, concurred, adding he expects the city to apply for funding for three paramedics.

“The city has always said three (paramedics) is the minimum we need. Having five would be like hallelujah,” he said.

Port Washington, which has been struggling with a lack of staffing for years, has one full-time paramedic-firefighter and is in the midst of hiring a second, but Fire Chief Mark Mitchell has said that the city needs one more full-time person to ensure 24/7 coverage, with part-time paramedics filling in when needed.

Biever said the commission would be happy with one more person, but added that he hopes the city would apply to hire more people.

“We can certainly put them to good use,” he said. “We would definitely like to see the third position considered in the grant. I think it would go a long way to improve the response times.

“I would hope we would be able to find a way to fund it (after the county money runs out). Let’s face it, public safety is the number one concern for our commission.”

Biever noted that Mitchell has been able to coordinate paramedic scheduling with the Saukville Fire Department, which has two paramedics, so there is someone from the two departments on duty most of the time.

While the county grants would provide more money for departments that consolidate, Biever said he doesn’t see a benefit to this.

“No one’s really told me what we’re trying to accomplish with it,” he said, adding he believes it would increase the cost to the city.

But Neitzke and Benning said consolidation and cooperation would seem to be inevitable.

“Collaboration has to occur while we honor the tradition of our volunteer firefighters,” Neitzke said. “I think municipal leaders are going to be having those conversations. We’re strapped for funding. We are growing at a pace that’s exceeding our resources.”

Benning said, “Personally, I’ve always felt very strongly that in this day and age we can’t continue to do things by ourself.”

The most logical partners for Port, he said, are the Saukville and Grafton departments — especially since those departments share one fire chief.

Nelson said he suspects the reason some municipalities won’t apply for the funding is they don’t know if they can afford to employ the paramedics when the county funding runs out after 36 months.

“I think some are afraid they’re not going to be able to do it,” he said.

Benning said that’s something all communities will have to deal with.

“Figuring out what the end game is after this money runs out is going to be a challenge,” he said.

Nelson said that if only a few departments seek the grants, the county needs to have an alternative plan.

“It will behoove the county to have a plan,” he said. “I’m pretty confident we will have a Plan B if we need it.”

That backup plan could include consideration of a regional emergency medical service or complete funding of the additional paramedics into the future, Nelson said.

“The paramedic positions are becoming critical to the county and its residents,” he said. “Something has to be done to ensure public safety.”

The County Board in April allocated $5 million in its American Rescue Plan Act to fund paramedics throughout the county in an effort to increase response times.

The intent, County Administrator Jason Dzwinel said, is to help with the current crisis in emergency response times and to “better understand what role if any the county will have to play after the ARPA funds expire.”

“Our goal is to make sure we create an EMS situation that functions countywide,” he said.

Committee member Pat Foy asked what the county would do if it receives less in grant funding requests than it has money.

The county could then reallocate money or extend funding to the end of 2026, Dzwinel said.

Communities can seek $200,000 annually for three years to fund these positions, while those that consolidate ambulance services with another community could be eligible for an additional $100,000 a year. If they consolidate with three or more municipalities, they can apply for as much as $100,000 annually for building improvements.

Sheriff Jim Johnson noted that a study done last year called for three paramedics to be stationed at six locations throughout the county — Fredonia, Saukville, Port Washington, Grafton, Cedarburg and Mequon-Thiensville.

The county’s fire chiefs, he added, played a part in determining the recommendation.

The application form approved by the committee asks municipalities to specify how many paramedics they want to hire in each of the three years and the amount they are seeking. They need to discuss how response times will be improved, and why they need more people.

The application also calls for a sustainability plan to be submitted to the county by May 1, 2023.

The grant applications were to be sent to communities later Tuesday, Dzwinel said, adding he expects the municipalities “will work through the process quickly.”

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