Voters to decide fate of next-generation EMS

Residents of four communities will be asked to increase taxes to pay for full-time responders in an era of dwindling volunteers
Ozaukee Press staff

Residents of the City of Port Washington, Village of Grafton and the towns of Saukville and Grafton will decide on April 2 whether to increase property taxes in order to bolster paramedic and fire services in their communities.

It’s a move that will effectively usher in a new generation of emergency services, one that relies as much on full-time paid staffing to ensure a speedy response as it does on part-time staff and volunteers.

The referendums in each community ask residents to significantly increase taxes so the fire departments can retain their existing full-time firefighter/paramedics and hire additional personnel.

In the City of Port, residents will be asked to increase the annual tax levy by $1.175 million, or $91 per $100,000 assessed valuation — the equivalent of $213.85 for those who own a house valued at $235,000, the median priced home in the city.

In the Village of Grafton, voters are asked to increase the levy by $1.5 million, or $94.66 per $100,000 valuation.

In the Town of Grafton, the levy increase would be $372,000, or $52.15 per $100,000 valuation, and in the Town of Saukville it would be $205,000, or $65.10 per $100,000 valuation.

There won’t be a referendum in the Village of Saukville because it is able to absorb its $39,000 cost for additional staffing in its annual budget.

The stakes are high, officials said, noting that more staffing means quicker responses, something that’s important when minutes can be the difference between life and death.

Departments have bolstered their ranks of paramedics in the past several years using American Rescue Plan Act funds, but that money runs out at the end of this year, officials said.

Without additional funding, communities are in danger of losing those paramedics, they said.

And while in the past communities would have increased taxes on their own to hire additional positions, state levy limits make it difficult if not impossible to add staff without a referendum.

The referendums bring to the forefront an issue fire departments have been dealing with for years — how to efficiently and cost effectively staff what were once volunteer departments.

For generations, departments have relied on volunteers, but in today’s world there are so many other things vying for people’s attention that membership has flagged, officials said.

“We continue to seek volunteers, but it’s harder and harder and it’s more difficult to retain them,” Bill Rice, the Grafton and Saukville fire chief, said. “They don’t stay 25 years, they stay five years.’

“It’s not just here this is happening — it’s everywhere. But it’s important to note, even if the referendum passes, we will not be a full-time department. We will have a combination full-time, part-time, paid-on-call (staffing).”

The requirements for firefighters and medical responders is so great that it also poses a disincentive for volunteers.

Joe DeBoer, the deputy fire chief and emergency medical services director in Port Washington, noted that it takes more than 100 hours of training to become a firefighter, 180 hours for an emergency medical technician and 1,200 hours for a paramedic.

The average age of firefighters in Port is 45, DeBoer said, noting the department has only two members younger than 30 and eight older than 55.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the communities are growing.

“All the same problems that exist in Grafton exist in Port Washington,” Rice said. “Is the population aging? Yes. Is the population growing? Yes. Are there fewer people willing to volunteer? Yes.”

Port Washington referendum

In Port Washington, the referendum funding would cover the cost of the city’s existing three full-time firefighter/paramedics — positions now paid through ARPA funds — and allow the city to hire six additional firefighter/paramedics.

“We’re not asking for above and beyond minimum standards. We’re asking to get to those minimum standards,” he said.

That, DeBoer said, would allow the city to staff two ambulances or an ambulance and a fire truck around the clock.

That’s important, he said, because over the last four years the department has seen a 71% increase in the times when it has two ambulance calls at one time.

And given the fact the city and its senior population are growing, calls for service are likely to increase, he said, noting the department answered 1,554 ambulance and 334 fire calls in 2023 and is expected to receive almost 3,000 fire and ambulance calls a year by 2032.

The additional staffing will also help the department provide needed training and allow staff members time off.

“Right now, for them to take that, one of their co-workers is going to have to work a 48-hour shift,” DeBoer said.

Over the last decade, DeBoer said, the department has experienced a 53% increase in calls for service while staffing has declined 23%.

In 2022, he added, the department couldn’t staff the ambulance at least six hours a day 42% of the time, he said, adding that on weekends that number increased to 54%.

That meant other departments had to cover Port’s calls, adding a significant amount of time to the response. When volunteers responded to calls from their homes, DeBoer said, the average response time was 12 minutes, 23 seconds. When they respond from the fire station, it’s 6 minutes, 42 seconds. Mutual aid calls typically take a minimum of 15 minutes. 

  Port has the needed vehicles and equipment for the additional paramedics, DeBoer said, but not the building space. However, the city is in the midst of planning for a public safety facility, which would be designed to provide enough space for these workers.

“From a facility standpoint, it’s going to be a challenge for a while, but with something on the horizon, we can adapt for the short term,” he said. “We’ve done it before, we can do it again.”

If the referendum isn’t approved, DeBoer said, “the city is going to be faced with a really tough decision in terms of what to do (to fund the current paramedic staff).”

The only other options are to take money from other departments, he said, or cut the positions. And then the city will be back to the situation it was in just a few years ago, when response times were long and the city frequently had to rely on mutual aid.

“The need for staff remains if the referendum passes or fails,” he said. “It doesn’t go away.”

Grafton, Saukville referendum

For the Grafton and Saukville fire departments, the referendum would fund 13 additional positions, allowing the Grafton department to be able to respond to two simultaneous ambulance calls around the clock and the Saukville department to respond to one call.

The funding would pay for two full-time Grafton paramedic positions currently funded with ARPA funds and one in Saukville, as well as six additional firefighter/paramedics at each department and a deputy chief.

“On a slow day at the Grafton Fire Department, we go out on a couple calls. On a busy day, we go out on 12, 13, 15 calls,” Rice said. “We have struggled at times. We cannot go on this way much longer.

“This referendum is really about adding three people per shift between Grafton and Saukville.”

Accidents on I-43 are common in both communities and can tie up two ambulances with four staff members and a fire engine, Rice said.

“Those numbers start to tick up quickly,” he said.

The Grafton and Saukville departments are working with an architect to determine what changes may need to be made to the fire stations, Rice said, adding those modifications will be paid through the regular budget process.

And while most of the attention has been on ambulance personnel, people need to understand that the additional staff will also increase the number of firefighters, Rice said.

“People shouldn’t think it’s only an EMS problem,” he said. “There just aren’t enough people to respond to calls anymore.”

Rice said no decisions have been made about what to do if the referendum doesn’t pass in every community.

“We’re trying to be positive,” he said.  “We would have to talk about how to handle it.”

One thing the referendum does not determine is whether the Saukville and Grafton fire departments will consolidate.

“It’s really a separate question,” Rice said. “I feel it’s likely that will happen no matter what.”


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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.

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