Nonprofit: Wis. fire, EMS agencies need assistance, change from state lawmakers

Staffing challenges and increasing service calls from an aging population make it harder to maintain service standards, the Wisconsin Policy Forum says

By Leila Merrill

MILWAUKEE — Growing numbers of fire and EMS agencies in Wisconsin are struggling to maintain appropriate service levels while facing numerous challenges, including increasing service calls from an aging population, staff recruitment and retention difficulties, according to a Wisconsin Policy Forum report released Wednesday.

Given the implications for public safety and local government finances, the nonprofit said that the situation may demand greater consideration of consolidating local agencies to improve service levels while holding down added costs.

The study offers possible ways to maintain service standards while coping with serious challenges.
The study offers possible ways to maintain service standards while coping with serious challenges. (Photo/Getty Images)

A response from state policymakers may also be warranted, the report finds.

The report pulls together insights and possible solutions gleaned from the Forum’s extensive fire and EMS research portfolio. In the past eight years, the Forum has studied 30 fire and EMS providers throughout Wisconsin as part of a dozen service-sharing studies.

The new report finds that while volunteer-reliant staffing models have served many smaller communities well in the past, rising EMS call volumes and staffing challenges are causing many to move toward a model that makes greater use of full-time staff. This can often improve operational efficiency and reduce response times, but it also requires additional funding that can be difficult to obtain due to competing local priorities or state limits on local property taxes.

“Perhaps our most important finding – and one that state and local policymakers cannot afford to overlook – is that unless they are appropriately addressed, fire and EMS financial and staffing challenges may soon have a real impact on public safety,” the report finds.

Recruitment is a major issue for all types of departments, but it is reaching a crisis point for many volunteer-reliant departments. For small communities with departments getting a call or two per day, a volunteer or part-time staffing model makes sense. Unfortunately, this model is becoming difficult for many departments to sustain. EMS personnel have licensing and training requirements that can be a significant burden; combined with today’s busy lifestyles, the result for many departments has been shrunken volunteer rosters.

The study also found that in many cases, consolidation does not produce immediate financial savings, but it offers advantages for future fiscal challenges. This is particularly true when consolidation offers opportunities to reduce apparatus and/or stations. Those departments that need to transition to a greater reliance on full-time staffing models may also find that consolidation with nearby departments offers a more cost effective way to manage that change. Consolidation also improves service levels in many cases.

Can’t consolidate? Collaborate. While consolidation may be beneficial, the odds are against it in most cases. Reasons include geography, conflicts between municipalities rooted in other issues, and perceptions that some municipalities will be “winners” or “losers” if consolidation occurs. Many fire chiefs acknowledge this reality and seek other ways to collaborate with neighboring departments. Options may include formal mutual aid agreements, automatic aid agreements, or “closest unit responds” frameworks; joint trainings; and equipment sharing.

State government provides little direct financial support to local fire and EMS agencies in Wisconsin and limits the ability of municipalities to increase local tax resources to address their growing challenges. Meanwhile, the most important form of state aid to municipalities –shared revenue – has been stagnant for years.

The study's authors looked at how fire and EMS are organized in other states and found ideas Wisconsin policymakers could consider. Many states have created regional agencies to address issues of planning and service design and provide state resources to support such activities.

Options might include:

  1. Establishing direct state aid (either grants or loans) to help prospective fire and EMS professionals pay for education and licensing costs.
  2. Creating opportunities for part-time fire and EMS responders to enroll in health care and retirement plans or other benefits offered to state employees.
  3. Increasing Medicaid reimbursement for ambulance transports to 100% of the Medicare rate.
  4. Allowing localities more flexibility in terms of revenue and expenditure restraint limits (other than referenda) when addressing documented fire and EMS service challenges that need to be addressed with greater financial resources. State law does currently allow some exemptions for joint fire districts and joint or countywide EMS districts. While these provisions may offer relief for those that elect to form joint districts or have their counties administer EMS, that may not be a feasible approach for many jurisdictions.
  5. Establishing a formal role for counties or regional entities in governing and setting standards for fire protection services and EMS throughout the state and providing state financial assistance to ensure standards can be appropriately monitored and met.

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