As Wis. population ages, first responders see more demand, higher costs

In Caledonia, the volume of calls for senior care facilities has gone through the roof since 2018, Fire Chief Jeffrey Henningfeld said


Rachel Kubik
The Journal Times

RACINE, Wis. — The Caledonia Fire Department, like nearly all publicly funded fire and rescue operations, is not allowed to refuse service to someone who calls the department. That's part of why call volume to senior care facilities has gone through the roof since 2018, Fire Chief Jeffrey Henningfeld said at a Dec. 6 Caledonia Village Board meeting.

In 2018, calls to the multibuilding Parkview Senior-Living Community totaled 201. This year, through Dec. 15, it was 451.

"We're trying to meet the needs of the community, and the needs are increasing," said Caledonia Fire Chief Jeffrey Henningfeld. (Photo/Caledonia Fire Department)

Older people tend to have an increased need for emergency medical services, especially when they remain independent longer.

"It's not just Parkview. It's all of our senior living facilities," Henningfeld said. "It's not that we're complaining about it, it just is that way. We're trying to meet the needs of the community and the needs are increasing. There's a myriad of reasons why."

State's aging population

The Caledonia Fire Department answered 2,964 calls last year and answered approximately 3,170 calls this year. For the most part, responses to senior living facilities increased.

The Siena Retreat Center campus called for CFD assistance 50 times in 2020 and 82 times in 2021. Frontida's Willowgreen Home assisted living facility saw its calls climb from 49 in 2020 to 75 in 2021. The Woods of Caledonia retirement community decreased its number of calls from 107 to 80 in those same years.

More calls means more costs for the CFD, and thus more costs to taxpayers, especially when Medicare and Medicaid don't always pay enough to cover the costs of each individual call.

Henningfeld said he fears the community's needs may not be met if the department loses staffing, and personnel wants to be able to continue to serve the community at its current staffing numbers.

Regardless of the numbers themselves, Wisconsin's population is aging fast, and the numbers of medical professionals in the state is not growing at the same rate.

According to a report from the Wisconsin Hospitals Association: "From 2017 to 2032, the U.S. population under age 18 is projected to grow by only 3.5%, while the population aged 65 and over is projected to grow by 48%, and the population aged 75 and older is projected to grow by a staggering 75.3%."

These trends will likely hold true in Wisconsin. According to state data, as of 2015, more than one-fifth of the populations of all but nine of Wisconsin's counties were age 60 and older, and no county's populations was more than two-fifths comprised of those 60 and over. By 2030, projections show that every Wisconsin county's population is to be at least 20% people who are 60 and older, and 10 counties (all of them in central or northern Wisconsin) are to have 40% of their populations age 60 or older.

Racine, Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant

Cynthia White, division chief of professional standards, health and safety for the Racine Fire Department, said the department hasn't seen anything in senior living responses as significant as Caledonia, but perhaps some slight increases.

In 2020, calls to Home Harbor were 49 and in 2021 to date, they were 61. Calls to Prospect Heights Community Living decreased from 26 in 2020 to 22 in 2021. Calls to The Villa at Lincoln Park doubled, from 53 to 106 during those same years.

She said the numbers may not entirely reflect seniors' need for medical attention or EMS, however, because in 2020, most senior living facilities were locked down and didn't allow visitors, including emergency personnel.

"We weren't at the facilities at all because they weren't allowing people there," White said. "We usually are going into some of their rooms. We didn't do that. We weren't going, they weren't calling. Calls just kind of ... everybody disappeared."

Randy Marvin, co-owner of Prospect Heights along with his wife, Elizabeth, said he and other Prospect staff members don't call EMS unless someone has a more serious condition.

Residents who need to go to prompt care will be transported via a private ambulance service. If an ambulance company is estimating a long wait time, staff will call another company. Then if no one can come, that's when EMS is called. Prospect staff also do their own transport.

Marvin said the residential facility can house up to 52 people, but the population is down to 46, which is a bit of a decrease from last year, and could contribute to there being fewer fire department calls.

"Our residents all have their own doctors, their own appointments. We keep them all in good health," Marvin said. "We don't have any major dramas where we can't take care of them ourselves. We've been here for 20 years and we know what we're doing here. We've got things down to a science."

Chief Robert Stedman of the South Shore Fire Department said EMS calls in total have actually been down compared to a year ago; they total 81.4% of the department's calls this year compared to 83% of the calls last year.

The total call volume has increased by 15% from 2020 to 2021 and the department that serves Mount Pleasant, Sturtevant and Elmwood Park receives about 68% more calls than Caledonia. He said a lot of department calls for senior citizens are to single-family homes, apartments and condominiums as well, not necessarily only senior living facilities.

Michael Wienke, a South Shore battalion chief, shift commander and EMS supervisor, said the department experienced an increase in call volumes from 2018-2021 as well, but the numbers appear to be linked to an increase in traffic, development, residential growth and population — not senior living centers specifically.

In 2020, the department had 4,613 responses to calls. In 2021, the department is on pace to respond to 5,305 calls.

Calls to Ridgewood Care Center went from 82 in 2020 to 99 in 2021. Across that same span: calls to Killarney Kourt retirement home increased from 73 to 93, Fountain Hills senior apartments calls decreased from 70 to 58, and Pleasant Point Senior Living calls held steady from 120 to 119 in those same years.

However, from 2019 to this year so far, Pleasant Point's total has more than tripled, from 39 to 119.

Jim Tarantino, founder and principal of Capri Communities, the company that operates Killarney Kourt, said the increase in EMS calls could be due to the fact the population is aging.

"It mainly has to do with their health conditions and they're getting older," Tarantino said. "Their needs are higher."

His company has locations in the Madison area as well as southeastern Wisconsin and staff has reported situations where ambulances can't arrive for pickups for hours or will altogether refuse transport. Some senior living facilities have said private ambulances can't come until the next day. Some hospitals will refuse to admit patients.

Tarantino said he's gotten very low amounts of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (the CARES Act) money to help with the labor shortage and COVID-19-related expenses. His staff is getting burnt out too.

"We're really struggling from a financial standpoint because we don't have any support," Tarantino said. "I've contacted government officials and I have yet to see any material responses. The government, frankly, is turning its back on us. It's very disheartening."

West end

Wind Lake Volunteer Fire Company Fire Chief Justin Lyman said he, too, has felt an increase in the number of calls to senior facilities. He said he can't think of many reasons the department would refuse to take calls to such facilities.

There's only a few small senior homes in the Town of Norway, he said, but the senior population is growing.

"We understand that different facilities offer different levels of medical care. When they run into a situation that is outside of their scope of practice, that's where we are able to step in as a resource," Lyman said in an email. "It certainly seems most of the construction recently, on the west end, has been senior based."

Kansasville Fire and Rescue Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ron Molnar said department calls to senior living facilities "haven't spiked or skyrocketed ... they might have a slight increase, but nothing astronomical."

The only senior living facility within Kansasville Fire and Rescue's district is Boland Hall, a residential building on the campus of the Wisconsin Veterans Home in Union Grove, located in the Town of Dover.

The department has one ambulance. If there's a second call at the same time the department is responding to a first call, it relies on mutual aid.

Over the past several years, the number of calls have remained steady, he said. This is true even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said didn't affect the data.

"It's not COVID-related, whatsoever," Molnar said. "People have chronic health conditions or are generally sick that need to go to the hospital."

Developer contests

Alf McConnell, developer of the Parkview Senior-Living Community, one of the largest such facilities in southeastern Wisconsin, said the call numbers for Parkview of 201 in 2018 to 451 in 2021 seemed "unrealistically high," and claimed the data may be incorrect.

"Somebody's made a mistake, I think," McConnell said. McConnell doesn't keep data internally of the number of times someone at Parkview requests assistance from the Caledonia Fire Department, but he said he hasn't noticed an increase of calls.

"It's not that often. It's not like we're seeing a line of ambulances lined up at the front door," McConnell said. "(But) I can't say there's been a decrease either. That implies that I'm standing there keeping track of ambulances that come there, and that's not the case."

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