National Night Out - Fire hose

Local firefighters gave a few lucky children some hands-on experience working a fire hose at the National Night Out on Tuesday. (Photo by David Michels/Regional News)

For nearly the past two years, a small but dedicated group of local leaders and public safety professionals have been studying fire and emergency medical services (EMS) in Walworth County.

Several years ago, a number of municipalities and towns requested the county’s help in organizing an effort to improve emergency services. While fire and EMS services are ultimately the responsibility of towns, villages and cities under state law, the county was in a position to bring local stakeholders together to discuss the matter.

With a few exceptions, EMS and fire services in our county are largely provided by volunteers. They not only answer fire and rescue calls at all hours of the day and night, but also complete many hours of training necessary to maintain certifications required to respond to calls.

In recent years, that system has become stressed in some communities due to a shortage of volunteers who are willing or able to put in the long hours necessary to perform this critical work. The goal of the study committee was to develop options to improve the delivery of these critical services and to ensure that they are sustainable in the future.

As part of the 2017 budget, county board supervisors agreed to form a study committee and appropriated $35,000 to support the effort. In late 2016, the board passed a resolution formally establishing the committee. Its membership initially consisted of three fire and EMS professionals, and four government representatives — one each representing town, village, city and county government. A later amendment added two emergency medical directors, doctors James MacNeal and Steve Andrews as non-voting members.

The committee held its inaugural meeting on March 23, 2017.

In establishing the committee, the county made it clear that it was not attempting to take over the service. While Wisconsin counties are authorized to purchase and equip ambulances under state law, such a move would have some significant implications, and the committee has yet to make a recommendation on the subject.

A county-run Advanced Life Support (ALS) service, for example, could supplement service that is currently being provided at the municipal and town level. Such a program, however, would have a significant budget impact and could potentially undermine the volunteer system that is currently in place. Switching to full-time paid staff at the local level would be another option, but would likely be a “budget-buster” for many communities. Operating under tight tax levy caps, these communities would have to move dollars from other programs or ask voters to approve tax increases.

At this stage, every idea is on the table as the study committee searches for a solution. The committee’s role is strictly advisory.

The committee has made slow but steady progress in studying the issue. Its first action was to survey local units of government and fire/EMS departments. Here, there is some reason for optimism. Eleven of the 14 fire/EMS departments that responded to the committee’s survey expressed a definite willingness to explore mergers or consolidations to improve service, and every department indicated that it already is or would be willing to share resources with other agencies.

One of the study committee’s recommendations was to form a group of public safety professionals to advise the sheriff on ways to make dispatching more efficient, including standardizing dispatching protocols and promoting the use of standard equipment and procedures. That committee, known as the Emergency Communications Advisory Committee, was established by the county board in 2018, and held its first meeting earlier this month. Sharon Fire Chief Bruce VanderVeen was elected as chairman of that committee.

You can learn more about the fire/EMS study by visiting the county’s website www.co.walworth.wi.us. In the “County Postings” section of the homepage, follow the link for the “Fire/EMS Study Committee.” Agendas, meeting minutes and videos of meetings will be archived on that page. If you would like to share any written comments on the topic, you can send them to me at dbretl@co.walworth.wi.us.

Better yet, attend a meeting in person. Two periods for public comments are provided at each meeting. The committee is interested in learning the views of all stakeholders, which is really every county resident who pays for and may ultimately need these critical services. Dates and times of upcoming meetings as well as minutes and agendas can be found on the webpage or by calling my office at (262) 741-4357.

David Bretl is the county administrator for Walworth County. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.