What if you called the fire department and nobody came?
That happened five years ago in Palmyra, where a car was allowed to burn because there was no one available to answer the call on the volunteer department. And it could happen again anywhere.
Now fast forward to 2021. Imagine the Oak Street warehouse fire in Fort Atkinson that belched a tower of toxic smoke into the sky that could be seen for a dozen miles, and 48 departments from two states answered the call. And it still took days to extinguish the blaze.
Wisconsin, especially in rural areas like ours, not only has reached the tipping point, it has reached the crisis point. The volunteer model that has been the lifeblood of local departments is broken, and our leaders in Madison and locally need to be the first ones to answer the call.
For centuries, volunteers across the state and America, dating back to Ben Franklin, formed fire companies so they could be ready when the unthinkable happened. They bought equipment and trained together, and eventually sold their services to the municipalities where they served.
The volunteers who ran these departments were the backbone of the community and were the ones who devoted their lives and their free time to keeping the community safe. Some were farmers, some shop keepers and others worked for local employers who valued the important service they provided and would allow them to leave work when an emergency beckoned.
But those days are gone. Long gone. With the rise of two-income families, few parents have time to devote the long hours needed not just to train for and fight fires, but the local fundraisers necessary to equip the departments and pay for expensive but needed lifesaving gear. In addition, in our increasingly mobile world, people often don’t work anywhere near the communities where they live, making it time-consuming and problematic for them to report to fires.
And then there is the training. It used to be departments would recruit young people from the community, sign them up, train them on the job and make firefighters out of them. Now, insurance regulations require hours of training, which is necessary, but expensive.
Add to this the inconvenience of being pulled away from family functions to answer calls around the clock, the clothing ruined by the work and the list goes on and on. It’s little wonder why most firefighters — despite the physical demands of the job — typically are 60 years or older. There are fewer and fewer young people coming out, and those who do are not exactly lured by the meager pay. It’s not uncommon to get $10.50 on a fire call — that’s a flat fee, not an hourly wage, so the longer you are at the fire, the lower your compensation.
The Legislature had this issue on its plate five years ago and chose to do nothing. It’s hard to imagine a more critical public safety need for government than providing reliable, sustainable firefighting services, but the legislative committee headed by Senator Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, chose to not spend a dime on trying to fix the problem. That is just reckless.
The good news is that some places are taking matters into their own hands, as the reporting in this newspaper showed.
In Palmyra, after that fire that burned out on its own, that community decided to train and pay a core of key emergency personnel as police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. This core group forms the strong nucleus for what still is a volunteer department. The professionals can provide the leadership, expertise and stability that guides the less-trained volunteers — and this helps close the staffing gap that also is hitting our EMS crews, too, across the state.
In Jefferson, the school district has started an apprenticeship program right in the high school, which allows people at a young age to see the potential need for firefighting, get engaged in this profession and be ready to go when they graduate.
In other communities, consolidation is the way forward. Smaller departments are merging or partnering with larger departments, so pay can be increased and the costs shared over a broader base to keep things more manageable.
None of these concepts is perfect, but they are innovative, and they do offer hope that there is a way out of this. Local people, caring people, smart people are there trying to find a way forward.
What we need right now more than anything is leadership, and that starts at the state level. And that leadership needs to continue at the local level, too. But most importantly, it’s going to cost money. It’s going to cost more to solve this problem. Nobody wants that, but it’s inevitable. That is why it is going to take political courage and a willingness to try new ideas.
One thing is for certain. We cannot keep wishing this problem away. Tomorrow it might be your car, or your house or a wildfire that rages out of control like California is facing. Wisconsin should not have to wait for a cataclysm before stepping up to the plate and taking on the challenge head on — just like our firefighters have to do all the time.
If only our political leaders were as brave.