Merging fire departments possible but complicated

Chief gives advice to northern Ozaukee district working to combine services amid staffing crisis
Ozaukee Press staff

Forming an emergency medical services district among four municipalities is no easy task, and the towns and villages of Belgium and Fredonia on Tuesday received some advice from someone who did it.

Lake Country Fire and Rescue Chief Matt Fennig discussed his experience, including what worked and what didn’t, in two mergers of fire departments in an affluent area of Waukesha County.

Departments in northern Ozaukee County are studying ways to combine resources to solve staffing paramedics as recommended in a 2021 report by the Wisconsin Public Policy Forum that found the county to have bare-bones emergency service levels.

Alarmed by increasingly long ambulance response times causes by a shortage of paramedics, Ozaukee County Sheriff Jim Johnson proposed the county use pandemic relief money to fund grants municipalities could use to hire full-time paramedics and that would encourage the consolidation of fire departments. The County Board approved the plan and the first round of grants are being awarded.

“We have to spend some of the taxpayers’ money to get better response times. We have absolutely no choice,” Town Chairman Tom Winker said.

Two members from each municipality will serve on the board of the new emergency medical services district. The Village of Fredonia has Joshua Haas and Don Dohrwardt, and the town has Lance Leider and John Depies. The Village of Belgium has Rose Sauers and Sarah Heisler, and the town has Winker and Bill Janeshek.

Winker sought input from Fennig for help in going through the merging process.

Fennig, the second licensed paramedic in the City of Delafield, went through one consolidation in 2010 with two communities, Nashotah and Chnequa.

Leaders of the communities, he said, set up meetings just like those in northern Ozaukee County, and created a 40-page intergovernmental agreement. The process took six months and included having an attorney at each meeting, Fennig said. Sometimes, the group would only get through half of a page in one meeting.

Fennig was promoted to chief in 2019, when a second consolidation of adjacent fire departments started. The pandemic slowed the process, but  Lake Country Fire and Rescue was eventually created with a finalized agreement between seven communities with populations from 597 to 8,000 and a combined property value of $5.9 billion. Fennig said the document is a public record and he would share it with the group.

The merger removed lines that split departments’ coverage areas, Fennig said.

“There may be a fire station that’s closer, but because it doesn’t say that community name on it they’re not first due for an EMS call,” Fennig said.

One of the first beneficiaries of the new department was Fennig’s mother, who had a stroke on Jan. 7, 2021. An ambulance from a nearby department, which before the merger would not have responded because she did not live in its coverage area, made it to her in two minutes. She has since made a full recovery.

Of the department’s three staffing stations covering a 78-mile area, a GPS system picks the closest one for responses, he said. Last year, 90% of response times were eight minutes or shorter. Challenges in hiring part-time employees have moved those times to 10 minutes this year, Fennig said.

“Mrs. Smith doesn’t care what it says on the side of the truck,” he said, adding patients only care that when they call 911 there’s an expectation that emergency personnel respond.

The department’s funding mechanism uses percentages of support for fire departments from each community in 2020. The rate is determined by call volume, population and the equalized value of property improvements.

The budget is also tied to the Consumer Price Index plus 2%. The state allows fire departments to add an assessment on tax bills, but not ambulance districts that northern Ozaukee is creating. Winker said that’s a top priority for state legislators to change.

Fennig suggested following state statutes in forming the new district, which allows employees to get into the Wisconsin Retirement System. That process, he said, will take about six months.

Fennig said the combined department saved about $7 million in fleet costs since 2010. Three ambulances haven’t been replaced during that span of time.

One key, Fennig said, is to let departments keep their identities. The Lake Country logo is on the trucks and apparel, but it didn’t replace old department names and logos.

He suggested to hold teamwork exercises early in the process so firefighters from different departments get to know who they’ll be working alongside.

Fennig also said going through the Company Officer Leadership Academy through Gateway Technical College in Kenosha was beneficial.

The northern Ozaukee district’s process is near the hiring stage.

Fredonia Fire Chief Brian Weyker said on Sept. 2 the county provided a 17-page recipient agreement that has been approved by the Village of Fredonia and is in legal review. The document outlines requirements for reporting to the county every three months on how the grant money is being used.

“I think that is the last hurdle we have to cross. Then we can get positions posted and start hiring,” Weyker said.


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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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