By JOE VANDELAARSCHOT Daily News
Rod Hansen has volunteered with the village of Jackson Fire Department since 1987. A few years ago he also became a paid parttime weekday employee.
But he said he and his family can also remember the Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations that were interrupted by emergency fire calls and accidents. Volunteers like Hansen are getting more difficult to find for some departments.
“Despite that I still love the job,” Hansen said.
Rural fire departments and ambulance services across Wisconsin, and the country, face a perplexing problem — how to recruit and retain valuable volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel like Hansen.
Earlier this month, Hartford Common Council members agreed to allow the city’s fire and rescue department to hire three permanent part-time firefighters/ EMTs to staff an ambulance weekdays from 6 a.m.-6 p.m.
Hartford Fire Chief Paul Stephans said he made the request because his department faces a shortage of volunteers.
“Few employers can allow their employees to leave work to staff an ambulance especially as often as our service requires,” Stephans said.
Terry Kohl, chief of Richfield Volunteer Fire Company, said his department has similar problems.
During recent discussions about the possible construction of a central fire station, there has been consideration of having a dormitory included. It would enable paid oncall people who live outside the area or volunteers, Kohl said.
“They may volunteer when they are young, but as they get older their lives change and they move out of the area,” Kohl said. “With a dormitory, that’s another way they can still volunteer here, but live elsewhere.”
Kohl said his department is operating “at bare-minimum staff” but has enough people respond to serve on ambulance calls and for backup when a crew is needed to stand by.
The average duration of an ambulance call in Hartford, Stephans said, is about 1.5 hours and it’s common for his department to respond to successive calls for hours at a time.
“The pool of available personnel to staff our ambulances has diminished considerably through the years,” Stephans said. “Because that pool is shrinking it puts pressure on the available personnel to work more often and longer.”
Another factor, Stephans and other fire chiefs contend, is the increasing amount of training an individual must undergo to become an EMT.
Stephans said basic EMTs are required to take 200 hours of training and the hours required to become an intermediate technician are even greater.
Emergency services are also receiving an increasing number of requests for help. According to the Wisconsin EMS Association, for the year 2011, there were 598,416 calls for EMS in Wisconsin, almost 15 percent higher than the calls in 2010.
In May, the Richfield Fire Company conducted a recruitment drive.
“We had 30 inquiries,” Kohl said. “Now we need to see how many of them will actually turn in applications.”
Some departments pay $15 or less per hour, a relatively low flat fee or an oncall amount for responding to calls.
Surveys from the WEMSA have shown that EMTs who are paid when they go on a call generally earn between $12.59 and $14.10 an hour. About 70 percent of ambulance services do not pay anything to their volunteers while they are “on call” waiting for a call to come in. The remaining 30 percent who pay their EMTs to be on call pay an overall average of $1.30 per hour.
It is rare, according to WEMSA, for volunteer/ paid-on-call EMS providers to earn more than $2,500 in a year.
Jackson Fire Chief John Skodinski said his department hired three full-time and two parttime employees a few years ago.
“We’d be facing some of the same problems now that other department are facing, if we hadn’t done that a few years back,” Skodinski said. “But we still have to keep looking to make sure we have enough people.”
Skodinski said his department has 48 members, but it has had as many as 60, so there is room for more volunteers.
“We’ve had a few inquiries lately and we’ll see if those people end up filing an application,” Skodinski said. “But we have to always be looking to make sure have enough volunteers.”