Fire department battles through pandemic

Grafton chief cites increases in calls, mutual aid as especially tough on volunteers during 2020 challenges
By 
JOE POIRIER
Ozaukee Press Staff

Grafton Fire Chief Bill Rice told the village’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday that his department was seriously taxed in 2020 while supporting neighboring communities and dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s been a year that we will never forget. Every day was a new adventure,” Rice said while presenting his annual report.

“There were days I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing with our department, answering 10 to 16 calls.”

Last year, the department received more than 1,600 calls, a 70% increase since 2011. In 2019, the department received about 1,400 calls.

Rice credited his staff for being able to handle all calls, noting that only one member tested positive for Covid-19.

“Our workforce has been able to remain healthy, and that is due to them taking the necessary precautions before they were able to get vaccinated,” he said.

“Covid hit us hard, and we got back to normal, and then it hit us hard again.”

Rice said most of the department’s calls were to assist residents at area nursing homes, but responding to neighboring departments was also an issue. Last year, the department responded to about 60 calls in Port Washington as well as calls in Cedarburg, Mequon, Saukville and Belgium.

Although the department administration is assisting the Village of Saukville since its chief left the department last fall, Rice said Saukville has not been a burden because there is typically only one call per day there.  

Rice said his department’s most serious calls occurred in the Town of Grafton because of its proximity to I-43 and the lack of a municipal water system there.

The department also assisted the City of Kenosha during the summer riot.

Rice noted that several volunteer firefighters are members of the village’s utility and public works departments who have been able to handle local emergencies during daytime hours, and he encouraged the village to maintain that working relationship.

“Our (village) employees allow us to function with fewer people on our staff,” he said. “Our relationship is fragile, and I want to warn the Village Board that we need to make sure this partnership continues to happen.”

The state suspended fire inspections in March 2020 because of the risk of exposure to Covid-19, which helped alleviate the fire department’s duties, but Rice said that could create more issues in the future.

“We are prepared for whatever comes our way, but we need to make up for what we could have prevented in the past year,” he said.

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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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