County poised to act on $5 million EMS plan

Committee supports using relief funds to hire 18 full-time paramedics to shorten dangerously long response times
Ozaukee Press staff

A plan for Ozaukee County to establish a grant program to help area fire departments boost the ranks of their paramedic corps was to be considered Wednesday by the County Board.

The program, which was unanimously endorsed Monday by the Executive Committee, would use $5 million in American Recovery Plan Act funds to establish a grant program that would pay for 18 full-time firefighter-paramedic positions for three years.

The program is seen as a necessity as fire departments throughout the county deal with a decreasing corps of volunteers and difficulty recruiting paramedics.

“We are definitely in crisis,” Thiensville Fire Chief Brian Reiels told the committee. “This is not a sustainable situation.”

Supr. Kathlyn Geracie, a member of the committee, concurred, saying, “I have gotten calls from constituents saying I waited 25 minutes (for an ambulance). That’s unacceptable. This is truly a life-and-death decision.”

County Board Chairman Lee Schlenvogt echoed that, saying, “We have to figure it out. People’s lives are at stake.”

The program endorsed by the committee allows municipalities to apply for a three-year grant with annual payments of $200,000 to recruit and retain paramedics.

Municipalities that have an agreement to consolidate services with another municipality are eligible for an additional $100,000 annually, and those that are consolidating services with three or more municipalities can receive yet another $100,000.

That incentive program was one of two topics that received the most debate Monday, with Supr. Paul Melotik expressing concern that he said was echoed by Supr. Marty Wolf, that the consolidation requirement might “burden” municipalities.

But County Administrator Jason Dzwinel said, “It incents people to work together.”

The incentives, he added, are drawn from work done in a Public Policy Forum study of the county’s fire departments that concluded the volunteer model of firefighting is outdated and offered options for improvement, including increasing the number of paid full-time employees and greater “intergovernmental cooperation.”

Supr. Kathlyn Geracie, a member of the committee, said a number of municipalities are already talking about consolidating.

“This is an incentive for them to continue talking,” she said.

Reiels told the committee that his department is in talks with the Mequon and Cedarburg departments, noting that the fire departments in the county depend on each other to fill in when their ambulances aren’t available.

“It is literally a crisis on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “Our discussion with Mequon was a matter of ‘this ain’t working.’

“I do like the incentive. I think it helps people at least have worthy discussions.”

Dzwinel said finding a way to ensure the paramedics hired with the grant money remain on the job after three years is key to the program.

“This is a stopgap piece,” he said.

Schlenvogt agreed, saying, “Once the money’s gone, it’s got to come from somewhere.”

Grafton Fire Chief Bill Rice, who also leads the Saukville Fire Department, agreed that the program needs to be sustainable.

“This is a good program but it’s fingers in a massive dike,” he said. “This buys us a little time.”

Every little bit helps, he said, noting the Saukville department recently hired two full-time paramedic-firefighters and that has had a ripple effect.

“In the month they’ve been there, they’ve made a difference in Saukville, in Port Washington,” Rice said, who noted that the problems facing departments today are a result of fewer volunteers and more calls — and the more calls there are, the more stressed paramedics are and the sooner they leave the field.

During a busy day in Grafton not long ago, there might be a few calls, he said. 

“A busy day now in Grafton on a Saturday could be 10, 11, 12, 13 calls,” he said. 

In return for the grants, municipalities are required to approve a sustainability plan by May 1, 2023, in order to remain eligible for the funding.

Other requirements to obtain the grants are that municipalities provide a budget narrative demonstrating how the funds will help reduce response times and identify local funds that will be used to recruit and retain paramedics.

  Supr. Tom Grabow asked who will pay for the paramedics, saying he does not want the money to replace local funds.

“It’s not intended to reduce those (municipal) funds,” Dzwinel said. “It’s intended to strengthen them.”

Supr. Rick Nelson, a committee member and chairman of Port Washington’s Police and Fire Commission, said there are issues beyond merely funding, noting that paramedics often leave within a short time after hiring to go to communities where they’re paid significantly more.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he predicted.

Supr. Bruce Ross questioned why the situation has gotten this bad.

“If it’s a crisis, why haven’t municipalities taken steps to address this?” he asked. “To the degree we allow municipalities to stop thinking hard about what the future is, we’re not serving our constituents very well.”



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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.

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