When James Small drives through Palmyra, people often wave.
They see him in a police SUV and later that day at the helm of a fire engine as the director of public safety, ready to help put out a blaze.
There is a sense of community relations here that you simply don’t see in many towns.
Along the main street there are a few places to get something to eat and even pick up some supplies at a hardware store.
Traffic is not busy in this rural area of Jefferson County, but what happened here five years ago might be a key for hundreds of rural Wisconsin communities that are experiencing fire and emergency response issues Palmyra once had.
It was a single car fire at the corner of Second and Main streets at a stop sign in 2016 that changed how this area looks at services.
Smoke and flames filled the car two blocks from the fire station that day — and no one responded.
“Eagle had to put out the fire because we couldn’t get out the door,” said Village Trustee Bill Lurvey.
That same week an area resident had a cardiac issue and there was no one to help until the City of Whitewater came to the call.
“Those two events for me, those were turning points,” Lurvey said. “That could never happen again.”
Across Wisconsin, small town volunteer fire departments are struggling with an old model that is simply outdated with limited funding. Departments not only are struggling to find people to give their time to a community but are faced with increasing requirements even to become a firefighter.
“Nobody functions off a volunteer police department,” said Jerry Biggart, part of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin and chair of the Wisconsin EMS Board. “I think people are a lot more afraid of a home invasion than a house burning down.”
Calling fire department issues in the state “abysmal,” Biggart said there are a lot of reasons the model has not changed. But the only way to fix the problem is something politicians simply have ignored, he said.
“They have committees raising red flags,” he said. “They are not stupid people. They know the only thing that will fix this is money.”
But something more has to happen, Biggart said. More responses where no one shows up. Then, he believes, legislative bodies might change the system that offers no monetary solutions.
And for a small area like Palmyra, those incidents convinced the town board that enough was enough. But it’s not what happened in that town five years ago that changed their minds.
It was what came next.
Recruiting volunteersWhen she was on her family farm as a child, Lisa Becher watched her dad run to the fire department when the whistle blew in the small town of Footville. He was a volunteer fireman and rushed to calls.
But when the family lost the farm, Becher’s father had to get a full-time job and he no longer could respond to a fire during those hours.
“You think of the lack of job opportunities in a small town,” she said. “You’re not close enough.”
The oldest of five girls, Lisa said she never thought firefighting was something she could do, especially as a woman.
“I got my degree in education at Eau Claire,” Becher said.
Just north of Janesville, in this small town with 832 people, she saw a firefighter walking around one day and asked if they needed any volunteers.
“That next morning I had a pager,” Becher said. “I wanted to be a volunteer and be a firefighter like my dad.”
Years later, Becher now is an instructor at Madison College, teaching in its fire academy that offers several levels of courses.
While people coming into the program learn to be firefighters, many are looking for a career, not volunteer work. However, volunteers need to complete 60 hours of training for a job they basically will make no money at.
A volunteer at the Jefferson Fire Department, for example, makes $10.50 per call. So, if that firefighter is battling a fire for 10 hours, they make roughly $1 per hour.
And each community has its own volunteer plan, and pay schedule, if any.
The crisis, which Becher said is coming, is finding enough volunteers.
“It’s getting harder to recruit and people’s lives are so busy,” she said. “They live outside of the area or work.
“Only way to fill those roles is to start paying them more money,” Becher added. “Then that kind of takes away what a volunteer fire department is all about.”
Something that is a concern.
Becher is part of a program that is recruiting high school students to get involved in fire departments.
“We have a program we started four years ago,” she said. “We are going into high schools and talking to junior and seniors, and trying to train them and put the idea in their head they can be firefighters at a young age.”
But she is aware that the model that Wisconsin uses is not sustainable.
Of the 765 fire departments in Wisconsin registered nationally, 78.8 percent are based on a volunteer model. While that might have worked in generations past when there were farmers who came running when the whistle blew, many volunteers today have jobs and might not even work in the town in which they volunteer.
And the fight these departments have is to find a new generation of volunteers.
“I think, we need to find a better way of coming up with recruitment and volunteering,” Becher said. “We have to get creative. I fear in the future we will be in crisis mode and won’t have enough volunteers.”
Now, fire departments like Milton are looking at sharing resources or merging with Edgerton or Janesville as many communities look to find solutions to a lack of funding.
The biggest feedback Becher hears from departments around the state is “please don’t raise minimum hours for entry level training — that would have been too big of a burden on them.”
Madison College has built a new facility for training firefighters that includes a new engine that costs $250,000.
The college can give students training and let them know the job is rewarding, Becher said.
“But that’s all we can give you,” she said.
For many, being a firefighter becomes a tight squeeze to fit work, family and life into a model of volunteering.
“Something has to give,” Becher said.
A new modelHigh pressure water flew out of the hose, knocking over buckets to the delight of families who came to Palmyra two weeks ago for National Night Out — an event where anyone can crawl into a fire engine or police vehicle.
It’s a way to connect with the community for Small, who is the director of public safety for Palmyra where he helped create a model to serve fire, police and EMS all out of one building. By using six full-time staff who are police, EMTs and firefighters all in one, Palmyra uses volunteers to fill out the rest of the hours to cover services 24 hours a day.
The model, Small says, is being used by only one other rural community in the state, but another is coming to Palmyra to study it.
As smaller communities struggle to finance public safety across the state and cover the hours needed, Small has shown that this model works.
“We use full-time staff to fill in those gaps,” he said.
The problem of finding enough staffing for rural communities isn’t a new one, Small said. It’s been around 30 years, maybe longer.
“The EMS side will see significant failures in next 10 years around the country,” he said of a service places are required to have.
Regions in the northern part of the state are finding longer response times trying to cover more areas, Small said.
When a person thinks of a volunteer who gives back to a community, he said people might not think about what that entails.
“When the public thinks of a volunteer, do they realize they are personally subsidizing the cost of that for the taxpayers,” Small said.
The lack of finding volunteers, however, is not something exclusive to fire departments, he said. You can find that with civic organizations, as well.
There also are different expectations a community has for services these days, Small said.
“They expect response times they get in a city,” he said. “There is a change in expectations and the volume is higher. Staffing is a challenge, and has been and will continue to be.”
Ten years ago in Palmyra, the town and village had a joint fire agreement, said Lurvey.
“It didn’t work and there had to be a divorce and there was,” he said.
And when the car fire happened with no response five years ago, Lurvey and others took the mindset of that will not happen on their watch.
As many small communities look to merge with another to share services, Palmyra is one that is trying something different.
When they hired full-time members to do all three jobs, Lurvey said the cost was eye-opening.
“But I could argue it’s not expensive,” he said.
They are bound by state statute to provide EMS services, Lurvey said, but not other services like police.
To provide all three, their model had to require people to do more.
“In another case, we took EMTs who fit in and sent them to the police academy and paid for it,” he said.
They also send people to firefighting training, something they are doing now with Kelsey Jacobi who is new to the department having worked in law enforcement in Waukesha County.
“I really enjoy fire and EMS, and as a cop I wanted to do more for my community,” said Jacobi, who starts firefighter training later this year.
“We made a model,” Lurvey said. “The model works because we retain officers very well.”
While some people are recruited out of Palmyra to larger departments that can pay more, Palmyra is able to retain many for years.
“We have a model for something and that’s why they are staying,” Lurvey said. “The community has responded well to it.
“Comments I hear now are how EMTs were here right away,” he added. “Unlike five years ago and they didn’t show up.”
Before the model change, Lurvey said the attitude by other departments was to not call Palmyra because they were not coming.
“You have to change a culture,” he said.
A solutionIn 2016 the state Legislature formed a committee to look at volunteer shortages for fire and EMS. Small was on that committee, as well as Biggart who sat through all the testimony as chair of the EMS board.
Biggart said there were departments across the state who spoke, some in tears, of the issues they were facing.
“Probably the biggest waste of time ever spent,” Biggart said of the committee. “Essentially nothing came of it.”
The committee was chaired by Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater. Numerous emails to Nass’s office to comment on the committee’s results were not returned.
“The people with the power won’t do the one thing that is needed to let these people raise taxes to fund public safety,” Biggart stated.
The current model for funding fire departments in Wisconsin is not sustainable, he said.
“I started as a volunteer, and I think of that whole model and that generation is just not the generation today,” Biggart said.
When you see volunteers arrive at a fire these days, he said many are over the age of 60 doing a very physical job. And the average age of volunteer firefighters is increasing each year.
Not only is battling a fire dangerous, but there is a risk of injury, Biggart said.
While there is legislation out to allow mergers and consolidation of fire and EMS between communities, the solution truly lies with money, he said.
“The biggest issue is if there is a way to have a fire district to have a board,” Biggart said. “And be its own taxing entity like school boards are.”
The current option for departments to get more money is a referendum. But Biggart said local governments usually don’t want to go that route.
“The community probably has no idea how underfunded and understaff (fire departments) are,” he said. “I think communities are doing everything they can to attract paid on-call.”
Biggart said defunding public safety has been an issue since Gov. Scott Walker helped push through Act 10 where shared revenues were slashed.
When explaining that the cost of a fire department to a community would be less than a can of soda per household, he gets the same answer.
“The response I got was, ‘Yeah, but we drink that can of soda,’” Biggart said.
The problem, he said, is if two homes in a neighborhood are broken into, people suddenly move out of that neighborhood. But if two homes burn, no one moves.
The idea is to believe that something will not happen to you, kind of like contracting COVID-19, Biggart said.
“Some of the famous last words before a person is put on the ventilator, ‘I should have got the vaccine,’” he said.
The pig roastWalking around Palmyra on a Tuesday night and chatting to residents, James Small had a smile on his face. He talked about why volunteers do their jobs.
“It is the coolest job in the world,” he said.
And by giving time back to their community, volunteers are trying to be the stop gap for a problem that is growing in the state.
Building teamwork and relationships between communities is key. The model, Small said, also targets kind, compassionate people to hire into the system.
“Wearing all those different hats day to day — police call to EMT to a house on fire — the mindset has to change with each,” said Paul Blount, who is starting his fifth year in Palmyra.
But even with this model of having paid people on staff, Blount said the model would not work without volunteers.
Rebecca McAllister, a business person in Palmyra, said the model gives the town flexibility to respond to calls with limited funds.
“And focus on community and trust development — contrast that with what is happening all over U.S.,” she said.
For Small, the idea of fixing the fire and EMS problem with limited funds comes down to making people love their jobs.
“If we make a workplace people want to come back to, they will stay longer,” he said.
Fire departments in many communities still need to conduct fundraisers like a pig roast or brat fry to raise money simply to exist.
“But I don’t see public works out there fundraising,” Small said. “Fire departments and libraries are expected to fundraise. People who are giving the most in volunteering are also expected to fundraise.”
While the model in Palmyra might not be the solution for larger departments like Fort Atkinson or Watertown, Lurvey said it works for rural ones, which make up about 30 percent of the state.
And by having a person do all three jobs, he said it’s like getting police service for free.
“It’s been night and day,” Lurvey said. “I really don’t see how other small towns are not running this model.”
He said he does not know of any missed calls in the last four years at the Palmyra department since the model has been staffed.
If a community like Johnson Creek runs the model, he said, then there will be more people out there with the ability to do all three jobs. And that’s a win for more communities.
“If there are two or three other communities to share a part-timer,” Lurvey said, “that would make everyone’s system safer.”
Biggart said he can’t believe the system of funding fire departments in Wisconsin hasn’t changed yet.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said.
“They had all those years to solve it. Now they have a gun to their head,” Biggart said of those in charge of finding solutions. “They put on these sham committees and then don’t put any money toward the problem.”