Historically, says Jefferson Fire Chief Ron Wegner, his department had a waiting list four people deep. Now, the department is happy to have just one new volunteer sign on.
“In the last two years, we’ve only had one individual who was not a high school student apply and successfully complete the firefighter requirements set by the State of Wisconsin,” Wegner said.
The Jefferson Fire Department finds itself in a similar position to many small-town volunteer departments, as fewer and fewer recruits sign on for what essentially is a labor of love.
A combination of societal changes, workplace shifts and greatly increased training demands have slowed the numbers of volunteer firefighter recruits to a trickle in many small-town fire departments.
Of the 765 volunteer fire departments in Wisconsin registered nationally, typically the smaller communities cannot support a paid, professional force.
“My age group is retiring,” Wegner said. “We are getting older and looking to pass on the torch, but there are few volunteers in the next generation.”
One factor in this trend is a decrease in volunteerism across-the-board. Service clubs and other organizations have seen similar drops as people work longer hours and choose to use their free time differently.
Another factor is the decline in locally-owned businesses which traditionally supported firefighters and allowed them to take off work on no notice to attend to emergencies. Out-of-town and out-of-state ownership is less likely to accommodate this kind of disruption.
Meanwhile, more people are commuting to jobs farther away from their homes than in generations past, cutting down on individuals’ availability.
The rise in training requirements is another huge factor.
“I am a huge booster of safety and training, but I believe we have reached the point of absurdity in our training requirements,” Wegner said. “It is impacting our ability to attract volunteers.”
Today’s firefighters have to go through 60 college-credit hours before they even can perform entry-level firefighting tasks.
During this training period, aspiring firefighters have to take classes at least one night a week, for which they’re assigned homework, written tests and physical proficiencies they have to complete.
“When I started 29 years ago, state mandates were not at that onerous level,” Wegner said.
In addition, Wisconsin’s Mutual Aid Box Alarm System requires firefighters to be Level I certified, which adds another 36 hours of classroom training, a written exam, a practical exam, 24 hours of HAZMAT exercises, and a written and practical exam to go with that.
If a firefighter wants to drive a pumper truck, that certification requires another 60 hours of training. There’s another 32 hours of training required for certification to operate the aerial truck.
“And, of course, you get to do that on your own time, at night, after a full day of school and/or work,” the chief said.
Because the local technical school struggles to find certified instructors, those who pursue the additional training might be required to drive to Madison College.
“We are fortunate in Jefferson County to have Lake Mills’ Todd Yandre, who does our entry level and Fire 1 classes,” Wegner said.
The entry level training takes an entire year, and no summer classes are available.
“So, if I bring you in March 1, I can’t begin to get you into class before the fall semester,” Wegner said.
One logical step could be to move to a paid fire department, which would increase the incentive for interested community members to go through this onerous training — or barring that, to at least volunteers’ compensation.
However, all local governments have been under strict levy limits imposed by the state government, making it impossible to increase compensation in one area unless some other area of municipal expenditure is severely cut.
Or a city or town would have to go to a referendum, which none seem to be willing to do to fund a department.
Part of a family
Every fire department uses a slightly different method to compensate their volunteers for their hard work and lifesaving efforts.
The Jefferson Fire Department uses a point system. One point (essentially equaling one call) carries $10.50 in compensation.
“It doesn’t matter whether you were out there 10 minutes or 10 hours, the pay is the same,” Wegner noted.
Usually it comes out to around $1 an hour.
“Nobody is doing this for the money,” Wegner said. “Volunteers are doing this purely out of the desire to help their community, family and friends. It really is an incredibly good feeling to be able to help people in what could be their worst moment.”
Family ties are one of the factors that continue to bring people into the department. Young people who grew up in the extended firefighting community are more likely to see the value of the program and to commit to the high-level training required to provide this needed service.
Many firefighters are part of a multi-generational tradition, as with Wegner, whose own father served with the local department for 50 years.
In addition, Wegner said, the department creates its own family.
“If a firefighter breaks their leg, their lawn’s going to get mowed. Their walk will be shoveled. They don’t even have to ask,” Wegner said.
When an emergency arises, the whole department comes together to support each other. Never has this been clearer to Wegner than in this past year. His granddaughter Elsie, the child of Wegner’s daughter Alexa and her husband, faces open heart surgery in another state and “this department has just wrapped their arms around us,” he said.
To combat the plunging volunteer trend, the Jefferson Fire Department has tried to increase its public profile with signs out in the community, Facebook posts and frequent website updates.
One effort that has been working is a cooperative relationship with Jefferson High School, through which the department works with the school to identify responsible high-level students who might be interested in pursuing a career in a related field or who just want to serve their community in this way.
The department spreads the word of these opportunities via an information table staffed by members of the local firefighting squad, through parent nights and through close communication with school administration.
“We’ll take on students for training at the age of 16,” Wegner said. “They do have to go through an interview process and have a valid driver’s license. To participate, they also must maintain at least a 2.75 grade point and they must be able to physically perform firefighting duties.”
This feeder program has resulted in a steady stream of one or two new firefighters a year. Of course, many of these young adults move on to other cities as they pursue their college or professional careers, but some have stayed to bolster the local department.
“We’ve had a lot of success with this program, though there have been a couple of failures when young people bite off more than they could chew,” Wegner said.
“We’re in constant contact with the high school. The understanding is that school comes first; there are no do-overs,” he said, adding that if high school trainees can’t maintain their grade point, they can’t stay in the program. The same goes for getting in trouble with the law.
Following a statewide trend, the Jefferson Fire Department has in the last several years become a joint department, joining forces with Jefferson Emergency Medical Services.
The emergency medical technician side of the department has a similar feeder program in the high school, though the requirements are somewhat different.
“You have to be 18 to write the National Registry Exam,” Wegner said.
EMT Basic is a five-credit course requiring 80 hours of training, state-administered written and practical exams, and the national registry exam.
One recent Jefferson High School graduate to go through this process was Chelsea Shuda, who went on to study nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Current Jefferson High School senior Olivia Reimer, who is in the final part of her EMT Basic training now, also signed on to do the firefighter training.
The other high school firefighters in training this year are senior Brady Wendt and junior Brady Lehman.
A number of the younger firefighters on the squad also went through the high school feeder program, including Bryce Wegner, Nash Niesen and Nick Drew.
Bryce, Chief Wegner’s son, went on to be a paramedic, a full-time employee of the Jefferson EMS, Level 2 firefighter and certified apparatus operator.
Alexa Wegner Steinbach, Chief Wegner’s daughter, also went through the training while in high school. She is employed as a career firefighter and paramedic in Watertown and also serves paid-on-call with the Jefferson Fire Department and EMS.
Nash has signed on as a career firefighter and EMT Basic in Wauwatosa but he continues to volunteer for Jefferson when he is in his hometown.
“When you put a pager on your hip, you are no longer just representing yourself. You are held to a different standard,” the chief said.