County may earmark $5 million for EMS crisis

Plan calls for funding full-time paramedic positions throughout county with relief money grants
Ozaukee Press staff

A plan unveiled Tuesday calls for Ozaukee County to spend $5 million in pandemic relief money to fund 18 full-time firefighter/paramedic positions in departments throughout the county as part of  a coordinated and urgent effort to reduce the sometimes alarming amount of time it takes to deliver lifesaving services. 

The county would distribute the money in the form of grants that municipalities would have to apply for and, as its name suggests, the Firefighter and Paramedic Support and Consolidation Proposal includes financial incentives for municipalities that consolidate firefighting and EMS services with neighboring communities. 

The proposal also anticipates that the county will play a long-term role in funding firefighting and EMS services. The $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds that have been earmarked under the proposal includes as much as $200,000 for a study of county-funded fire/EMS services.

County Administrator Jason Dzwinel told the county’s Public Safety Committee, which received a first look at the plan Tuesday, that although the county does not have the ability to fund firefighting and EMS services countywide because of the state tax levy limit, it could and will probably need to contribute beyond its allocation of pandemic relief funds. 

“We want to be open and honest that there’s going to be a tax levy needed to keep this going,” Dzwinel said. “This is a problem for the county. It’s not just a municipality problem.”

He noted that state law would allow the county to tax for a completely consolidated Ozaukee County fire and EMS service, or “a true countywide fire/EMS solution,” outside of its levy limit.

The $5 million in county relief funds would cover the cost of employing 18 firefighter/paramedics for 30 months, and while the proposal emphasizes the need to sustain those positions after that, it primarily addresses a more immediate need, Dzwinel said. 

“We understand sustainability is an issue, but the critical issue is that people are dying and we need to address that first,” he said, referring to response times that officials said are as long as 25 minutes in some instances.

The goal of the proposal is to reduce response times to six minutes.

“We need to stop the bleeding first,” Supr. Janette Braverman of Mequon, a member of the committee, said of the need to address response times. 

“Literally,” said Sheriff Jim Johnson, whose idea of using relief money to fund firefighter/paramedic positions to help understaffed departments throughout the county prompted county and community leaders to work together on the proposal unveiled Tuesday. 

The plan, which was praised by the Public Safety Committee, was to be presented to the County Board on Wednesday. If it is warmly received there, a resolution authorizing its implementation would be considered by the committee later this month ahead of a vote by the board on April 6, Dzwinel said. If the plan is approved, the county could begin distributing funds to municipalities as early as June, he said. 

The goal of the proposal is to fund three full-time firefighter/paramedics positions in Fredonia, Saukville, Port Washington, Grafton, Cedarburg and the Mequon-Thiensville area to ensure that there is one firefighter on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week in each of those areas.

“We have to be fair to the entire county because everyone is getting overwhelmed,” William Rice, the fire chief of both Grafton and Saukville and one of the architects of the proposal, said. 

Supr. Rob Holyoke of Thiensville disagreed, arguing that areas of the county like Mequon and Thiensville should receive more county assistance because they have larger populations to serve.

“Thiensville isn’t real happy about this. I’m not real happy about this and, as a county supervisor, I can’t vote for it.”

But officials said the key to the plan is that it provides full-time paramedic coverage throughout the county to avoid situations that result in 25-minute response times that have occurred when, for instance, paramedics from Thiensville are called to respond to emergencies in the far northern end of the county because other closer departments don’t have personnel available at the time.

“The beauty of this program is that it spreads the resources out throughout the county,” Grafton Assistant Fire Chief Matt Karpinski said. 

Rice said, “We’re trying to create a web of service so it’s easier to help your neighbor.”

But in order to create that web of service, municipalities will have to apply for and receive the county grants.

Those that do will receive $200,000 to add firefighter/paramedic positions and can qualify for an additional $100,000 for every community they consolidate services with.

Officials noted that Mequon and Thiensville have been discussing a consolidation and now Cedarburg has joined those conversations.

Communities that receive grants will have to submit plans to sustain the firefighter/paramedic positions after the county funding is exhausted but have until July 2023 to do so. 

The proposal also includes funding for relatively minor firehouse renovations needed to accommodate employees who will live there for stretches of 24 hours at a time.

“Almost no stations in our county were designed for people to sleep at,” Rice said. 

Grafton Trustee Lisa Harbeck, chairman of the village’s public safety committee, said Grafton is fortunate to have added three full-time firefighter/paramedic positions to its department under Rice’s leadership and said other communities in the county should have access to a similar level of emergency service.

“I think countywide this is really important,” she told the committee. “This (the proposed plan) is necessary for the county. Grafton is behind it 110%.”

Belgium Fire Chief Dan Birenbaum said having a full-time firefighter/paramedic service dedicated to the northern end of the county is vital, noting that the Belgium and Waubeka fire departments are the only two in the county that don’t have full-time employees.

“I think this program is very important,” he said. 

The proposal reflects the realization that the communities of Ozaukee County can no longer provide effective fire and emergency medical services with departments staffed by volunteers who are paid only when on call, which was the conclusion of a study by the Wisconsin Policy Forum released last year. The study made no recommendations but offered six options — all of which include increasing the number of paid, full-time fire department employees and promoting greater “intergovernmental cooperation.”

“Our county is simply overwhelming our ability to respond (to emergencies),” Rice said.

The need for full-time firefighters and paramedics hasn’t been lost on local leaders, but municipalities are struggling to find the money to fund the positions. And even if they are able to include the positions in their budgets, they are having trouble recruiting people for those positions and retaining them.  

No community in the county is immune to the staffing crisis, Rice said, and for some departments the situation is “dire,” adding that there are times when almost every available ambulance in the county is responding to a call.

“As a fire chief, that’s a horrible feeling,” Rice said.



Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

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


User login