Recruitment problems prompt fire chief to ask that new options be explored
Finding a few good men and women to join the ranks is not a new challenge for the Grafton Volunteer Fire Department.
But as he and his staff continue to grapple with ways to attract members, Fire Chief William Rice would like the search to spark a more serious discussion about staffing needs.
Recruiting firefighters and emergency medical technicians “has been a huge problem for a long time,” Rice said.
“It’s very difficult. A lot of people are looking for full-time employment, and a lot of people have many family commitments that keep them from serving or staying with the department.
“The competition for people’s free time is very challenging.”
Since being hired as Grafton’s first full-time fire chief in July 2013, Rice has overseen a variety of upgrades in the once-all-volunteer department. After an initial drop in membership, the department currently has about 60 active firefighters and emergency medical service personnel, he said.
At Rice’s request, the village approved hourly wages for EMTs and firefighters for on-call duties and scheduled training, hired a full-time division chief and upgraded its emergency medical care to include paramedics.
Part-time wages are also paid to on-duty day-shift members, and EMS members receive stipends for paramedic and EMT duties.
As division chief, Matt Karpinski serves as Rice’s top assistant and handles fire inspections and public education programs.
Rice said the upgrades have been crucial in helping the department better serve a rapidly changing community that has had substantial residential and commercial growth in the village and town during the past two decades.
“It’s not accurate to call our members volunteers because they are receiving something for their service,” he added.
However, Rice — whose job was created when village and town residents passed a 2012 referendum — said his department and those in other area communities are struggling to retain and recruit members.
In a report to the village’s Public Safety Commission, Rice said that this year alone his department has lost members to the North Shore, Manitowoc and South Milwaukee fire departments, the Mequon and Thiensville police departments and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
“Additionally, we have lost members that have moved out of the area on a regular basis,” Rice said.
“The staffing problem facing the Grafton Fire Department is not a local issue, it is not a regional issue, it is a national issue.”
Like other area departments, Rice said, Grafton is trying to attract members both able to meet training and certification qualifications and willing to juggle private time with a community service commitment.
The department’s current recruitment efforts, Rice said, include posting notices on village signs, Facebook and the village’s website and through a recent communitywide mailing.
“But it’s having limited success,” he said. “It’s a very complex situation with a lot of factors involved.”
Although providing part-time wages and stipends has helped with recruiting, it hasn’t significantly boosted numbers or stopped an exodus of members, according to Rice.
“The paid on-call model is not sustainable,” he said.
Rice said his observations should not be interpreted as criticism of Grafton’s elected officials.
“They’ve been supportive of me and the department, but we have to begin looking at other ways to do things,” he said.
In his report to the commission, Rice said the village and town “need to begin the planning process for continued modernization and coverage of fire and EMS services.”
“The goal of the community must be to find a way to assure 24/7 coverage for fire and EMS calls in the future,” he added. “This will most likely require full-time firefighter/paramedics.”
Rice doubts that current approaches will bolster recruiting.
“Solutions may be local, area, countywide or regional approaches,” he said in the report. “Regardless of the final solution, it is likely that it will be costly.
“The recommendation of the department is for the village and town to anticipate these costs and begin the planning now.”
The first step, Rice said, is for local officials to begin talking about new options.
“It’s my job to get the discussion going,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Grafton Volunteer Fire Department continues to make a nonstop pitch to expand its ranks. With the next training classes set to begin in January, applicants are being urged to step forward now.
“There is an immediate need. If you’re thinking about it, contact us right now,” Rice said.
More information is available at the department’s website: www.graftonfire.com.