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Our View

Statewide fire and EMS study offers locally-applicable data, perspective

Its release comes as local fire and EMS departments that serve Cambridge, Deerfield and nearby communities are hitting a crossroads

If you’ve followed the local debate, in recent years, over fire and EMS in Dane and Jefferson counties, you’ll find few surprises in a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

“In Need of Resuscitation: Wisconsin’s fire and EMS agencies face looming challenges,” was released in October, after eight years of research with 30 participating fire and EMS departments across the state.

The full report is at wispolicyforum.org. Its release comes as local fire and EMS departments are hitting a crossroads.

Recently, all four municipalities that make up the Marshall Area EMS said they’re looking to be absorbed by Sun Prairie EMS. And Deer-Grove EMS Chief Eric Lang recently said it might reach out to Cambridge and Marshall about merging.

And the Cambridge Community Fire and EMS Commission, which includes the villages of Cambridge and Rockdale and towns of Oakland, Lake Mills and Christiana, is poised next April to bring back a new slate of area referendums to fund a fire and EMS station expansion.

It’s no surprise that the Wisconsin Policy Forum found fire and EMS departments are struggling with recruitment and retention. It found departments that remain all-volunteer or are a mix of full-time employees and volunteers are particularly “reaching a crisis point” in their staffing.

Neither is the study’s finding, that state revenue caps have kept departments from transitioning away from volunteers by fiscally constraining their ability to add add staff, a great revelation.

Across the state, fire and EMS departments and the municipalities they serve have viewed hiring full-time fire and/or EMS staff as out of reach fiscally, as revenue caps continue to cinch their spending by limiting how much they can increase their tax levy year-to-year.

Other silver bullets remain elusive, meanwhile. Consolidation, often held out as a way to save money, has its own catches, the study found. “While consolidation seems good in theory and could produce long-term savings, cost efficiencies, and service improvements in practice, implementing such an option is almost always much harder than it looks,” the report said.

Whether it’s embracing new ways of working cooperatively, encouraging consolidation, devising a new state funding structure that ensures adequate dollars for fire and EMS without stripping municipalities of their ability to pay for other services, reducing fire and EMS recruitment and retention roadblocks or pursuing some or all of the above – the report make it clear that wide-scale change is needed. And, it’s clear that there’s no time to waste.

“Perhaps our most important finding – and one that state and local policymakers cannot afford to overlook – is that unless fire and EMS financial and staffing challenges are appropriately addressed, they may soon have a real impact on public safety,” it said, going on to offer some ideas that have worked well in other states.

So, we’ve talked. We’ve defined the problem. We’ve examined the situation statewide, county-by-county, and locally.

Perhaps the creation of a statewide fire and EMS task force, with opportunities for public input, might be the best next move. The end goal must be a system under which emergency responders feel supported as they continue to serve their communities. And we must find consensus on staffing structures and on a spending mechanism — appplicable statewide — that respects taxpayer pocketbooks and meets the needs of departments of all sizes.

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