As fire departments nationwide have grappled with recruitment and retention challenges, area firefighters in Sauk, Marquette and Columbia counties say it’s becoming harder to find people available for fire calls during the day.
“It’s kind of a roll of the dice,” Baraboo Fire Chief Kevin Stieve said. “We need to get creative in how we do things.”
Lake Delton Fire Chief Darren Jorgenson said a challenge his department faces for recruiting is a housing shortage. Because Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton are heavily focused on commercial expansion, housing costs and the overall standard of living is higher than in surrounding communities, Jorgenson said.
In many households, both parents have one or two jobs to help support a family. Adding volunteer fire service on top of that is a lot to ask of people, Portage Fire Chief Clayton Simonson said.
“You’re asking someone that has a family to drop everything at a moment’s notice and come help other people,” Simonson said. “We’re all facing the same thing. Every fire department is going through exactly what we’re going through.”
After working full-time jobs during the day, some prospective firefighters are only available at night, Endeavor Fire Chief Mike Bourdeau said.
And as some career firefighters retire, replacing their skills sets is tough.
“We’re losing good, experienced firefighters, and it’s getting harder to replace that experience,” Bourdeau said.
Jorgenson said lower recruitment numbers can sometimes leave communities vulnerable and force local fire stations to close.
Every fire department has its own methods to find more staff.
Pardeeville Fire Chief Rick Wendt said word of mouth in local communities goes a long way.
“We’re always looking for young help,” Wendt said.
Simonson said the Portage Fire Department holds open house events and educates children on fire prevention at local schools.
Jorgenson said his department pushes promotional videos on social media and advertisements in newspapers to reach wide audiences.
The Lake Delton Fire Department also has its own newsletter and mails out pamphlets.
Bourdeau said using social media sites such Facebook and holding recruitment drives help to reach community members.
Fundraisers draw in crowds of people to gauge who might be interested in serving, Stieve said. Posting hiring notices at local businesses helps, too. The city of Baraboo is also trying to secure funds for a newer and larger fire station that would accommodate more training space, Stieve said.
“We’re trying to cover all bases and beat all the bushes,” Stieve said.
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The Baraboo Fire Department has 35 firefighters and six applicants. Ideally, Stieve said, his department would have a full roster of between 45 and 50 firefighters.
Stieve said the Baraboo department responds to one call a day, on average.
The Portage Fire Department has 28 firefighters in total, with just six of them being full-time. Two applicants are being screened after two firefighters left this summer, Simonson said.
The village of Pardeeville Fire Department hired five new firefighters this year, Wendt said, bringing the all-volunteer roster to 35.
Jorgenson said the Lake Delton Fire Department has 35 firefighters. From year to year, the roster has usually hovered around 30 staff members. Only three of those firefighters are full-time, including Jorgenson.
The village of Endeavor has 21 volunteer firefighters who are paid on-call. Every fire department in Marquette County is volunteer-based, Bourdeau said.
About 65% of firefighters in the U.S. are paid on call, and a majority of fire departments are entirely volunteer based, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Despite a different culture than 50 years ago and staffing challenges, Bourdeau said he’s confident firefighters will always respond to calls when needed. Many agencies have mutual aid agreements to help each other adequately respond to emergencies such as structure fires.
Simonson said firefighters “don’t have to spend a dime,” because local agencies pay for training, uniforms and schooling.
But the responsibilities have greatly expanded since he started 40 years ago. Portage has its own hazardous materials team to respond to chemical emergencies, and firefighters continuously train to learn new skills.
“We don’t just fight fires,” Simonson said.
Building morale is important, especially when firefighters’ families are involved.
Simonson said the Portage Fire Department occasionally goes ice fishing, has picnics and hosts holiday parties. This gives firefighters a chance to unwind outside of their normal routines that require them to be on-call during nights, weekend or holidays.
To help offset scheduling issues during busy summers, Jorgenson said the Lake Delton Fire Department asks firefighters to work full shifts during which they answer calls at the station and respond to fires as needed.
This avoids having volunteers having to drop everything at once and drive long distances for a single call. It also manages stagnant staffing levels, Jorgenson said.
On special occasions such as Automation weekend each year, firefighters are able to sleep at the station and double up on shifts to avoid getting caught in heavy traffic.
Any time local businesses allow their employees to leave and respond to fire calls is greatly appreciated, Jorgenson said, as it helps provide more flexibility.
“It really is a fun cool opportunity to be involved with the community. But it is a balance,” Jorgenson said.