OZAUKEE PRESS EDITORIAL: Our volunteer fire departments need full-time paramedics

Bracing weather and football notwithstanding, fall is probably not the favorite season for officials of Ozaukee County’s cities, villages and towns.

Fall is budget season, a time of the year made difficult for local office-holders by state tax-levy limits that restrict spending for community needs. The members of Port Washington’s Common Council and Grafton’s Village Board, however, can look forward to one easy spending decision: Approving the hiring of full-time firefighter-paramedics.

Fire chiefs of both communities recently made compelling cases for putting full-time highly trained specialists in first-responder medical care on the payrolls of their volunteer fire departments.

Port Fire Chief Mark Mitchell told the Police and Fire Commission he needs one full-time firefighter with paramedic certification right away and three by 2020. Grafton Chief Bill Rice told the Public Safety Committee the village needs two new full-time paramedic-firefighters in addition to the one who is already on the payroll in the next year and a total of nine in the near future.

The city aldermen and village trustees may have to tweak the timing of these hires, but there is no question that they have to provide the paid professionals the chiefs want for their communities.

When Port Washington hires its first full-time firefighter—with funding that should be included in the budget for 2019—it will be a historic moment for the city. With the exception of a paid full-time chief, the PWFD has been a purely volunteer organization through all of the 183 years of the city’s history.

Port Washington’s volunteer paramedic setup is now strained to a potential breaking point. Mitchell said two of his department’s volunteer paramedics handle 90% of the ambulance calls. One of them is on medical leave; the other plans to retire soon.

The situation in Grafton is so critical that Rice called it “the primary public safety issue” facing the community.

Meanwhile, the demand keeps increasing. with ambulance call volume in Port Washington up 70% in the last five years and 100 ambulance calls in August alone, an all-time high. Under the PWFD’s protocol, the ambulance team is expected to include a paramedic and an EMT on each call.

Pressure on Grafton’s ambulance service has been even greater, with 118 calls in the month of August.

Volunteers have saved both communities money. The part-time paramedics get some financial compensation when they are on duty, but it’s nominal. In Port Washington’s case, the pay is $5.52 an hour when on call and $22.35—less than one-fourth of the hourly rate of many plumbers—while responding to calls. Mitchell estimates it will cost the city about $70,000 in pay and benefits for each full-time hire. The full-timers would serve as both firefighters and paramedics.

Grafton and Port Washington are fast-growing communities, but it is not just population growth that is stressing volunteer staffing. The demands of first-response lifesaving and firefighting are increasingly complex with training that requires large commitments of time. Service like this is a lot to ask of men and women who have other jobs and the busy lives that define these times.

There is no volunteer tradition richer in history and dedication than that of small-town fire departments. Generations of members of these organizations have been more than saviors of property and lives; they have also been influential elements of the social fabric of their communities, often lending their energy and camaraderie to support causes important to their city, village or town.

The good news is that in spite of the need to hire a few full-time employees, the fire departments of Port Washington and Grafton are still primarily volunteer organizations. This is an economic boon to the communities—neither could afford all-paid departments—and it comes with another important benefit: It’s unlikely that any fire department staffed fully by paid employees could match the esprit de corps of the volunteer firefighters of Port and Grafton.

Both communities have to face the music and hire the paramedic help their fire chiefs need. But at the same time they should do their best to nurture the volunteer firefighter tradition for as long as it’s viable.


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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.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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