Fall River, Columbus look for new members
In his 30 years as Fall River fire chief – including 47 total on staff – Gene Adam has seen ups and downs when it comes to staffing.
As a small town, volunteer-based organization, the Fall River Fire Department has never had an over-abundance of personnel, but in recent years, numbers have been especially low. Adam, who plans to retire at the end of 2020, would like to see more firefighters join his staff before calling it a career.
Adam said the department currently has about 20 active members with three prospective firefighters taking classes. Fall River recently welcomed a new firefighter that Adam said is bright and should be a strong addition to the staff. But there are plenty of opportunities for others to join the department and help the community.
“It’s always been a fluctuation in all the years I’ve been here,” Adam said. “We have a good, young, smart group that is on board now. We have the quality, we just don’t have the quantity.”
Three of the staffers, including Adam, are in their seventies and help in limited roles. The chief said it’s very difficult to find assistance covering weekday calls. Most of Fall River’s staff work at their full-time jobs during the day, making it almost impossible to respond.
For daytime calls, Fall River typically has four firefighters available. The department relies on a mutual-aid agreement with Columbus to cover those calls. Columbus, also dealing with personnel shortages, often requests help from Fall River as well.
“It’s a strange community because it seems like a lot of people that live in town work out of town and people who live out of town come to work in town,” Adam said of Fall River.
Columbus Fire Chief Randy Koehn agrees with Adam. Koehn said there are a few Columbus businesses, such as Lyco and Enerpac, which allow employees to leave work to respond to fires and other emergencies.
Both Adam and Koehn believe there are multiple reasons why local departments are struggling to fill positions. Adam said lifestyles have changed with generational shifts. Columbus and Fall River don’t have a large population of residents in their twenties as they tend to live in larger cities such as Madison. Also, residents in their thirties and forties often have young families to tend to, leaving less time for volunteer organizations.
“People are involved in their kids more and it’s getting harder to get new members,” Adam said.
You have free articles remaining.
And the problem isn’t limited to the Columbus area.
“It’s (an issue) all over the state,” Adam said. “You read about it all the time.”
Koehn said there is never a waiting list to join his department. He addressed the issue in length in his July column for the Columbus Journal. Koehn wrote that 50 years ago, local departments seldom had to worry about staffing shortages. According to Koehn, in 1970, only two of Columbus’ 28 firefighters worked in Madison, making it easier for personnel to respond in the daytime.
“Not only were these firemen locally employed, there were even business owners who were volunteer firemen, which is a rarity these days,” Koehn wrote. “‘Volunteerism’ doesn’t seem to be the same as it used to be.”
Koehn said Columbus currently has 40 firefighters with two in training. Speaking of training, Adam said the hours and course work required to become a firefighter sometimes deters people from joining. He said training and safety requirements have increased through the decades based on state mandates.
“To get to entry level, which is Fire 1 (status), you’re going through 100-130 hours of training,” Adam said. “Then to become an officer, you need more training; you need training to operate a pump. It’s a lot, it’s more than just showing up two or three times a month for meetings and drills, there’s a lot of training to go through to achieve a certain level.”
With weeks of classes and preparation, Adam often tells prospective firefighters the first year will be challenging.
“You’re going to be gone a lot going to classes, but it tapers off after that,” Adam said. “The family thing is tough, especially if you have a spouse and little ones at home.”
Along with the village, Fall River Fire covers 46 square miles, including the town of Fountain Prairie, four sections of the town of Otsego and six sections of the town of Cortland.
Both Adam and Koehn, local firefighter veterans for decades, believe there is sense of joy and pride in helping their communities.
“You want to be there for the community so they have someone to depend on,” Adam said. “We’re here to help people.”
On Oct. 5, at noon, the Fall River Fire Department will host an open house. Adam said the event is an opportunity for the community to get to know the department. The fire station is located at 450 South Street. For more information, call 920-484-3808 or search “Fall River, Wi Fire Department” on Facebook.
Follow Kevin Damask on Twitter @kdamask or contact him at 608-963-7323.