Wis. efficiency study may lead to reorganization of fire, EMS response

The research suggests that some municipalities may be better served if agencies from other municipalities responded


Ricardo Torres
The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc.

RACINE, Wis. — During an emergency situation like a house fire or medical crisis, most people don’t worry about which fire department is going to come to the rescue, just that a department responds — and as quickly as possible.

While that may seem obvious, in the eastern part of Racine County there are several areas that might be better serviced by fire and EMS if a different municipality responded.

“There are parts of Mount Pleasant that are closer to a Racine fire station than to a South Shore fire station,” Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, said. “But because these are separate departments, those parts of Mount Pleasant are being served by South Shore. Conversely we have parts of Racine that are closer to a South Shore station than to a Racine station.”

That is just one of several observations made in a study by the Wisconsin Policy Forum and the Center for Governmental Research, which looked at ways for fire and EMS departments to make better use of their resources as part of the Resilient Communities series put on by the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread.

On Wednesday, officials from each of the municipalities east of Interstate 94 met at the Racine Theatre Guild, 2519 Northwestern Ave., to hear about potential solutions to some issues.

It was billed as the first step in what could be a long process to improving the efficiency of emergency services east of the Interstate. The idea has been brought up several times over the years and is getting another look now with the release of the Wisconsin Policy Forum’s report, which gives government leaders another change to evaluate services.

Racine Mayor Cory Mason said the region has a shared future and will either “overcome some of the challenges we have or we might miss the opportunity.

“The reason we came to present this to the public today is because I think we’re at the point where we need to begin to have a more public dialogue about what these options are instead of presenting everybody with the outcomes and saying ‘Here’s what we decided, what do you think?” Mason said. “There’s going to be a lot of room for conversation going forward, again, tough questions, tough answers. But I still have confidence that our ability to answer those questions are really going to require us to work together.”

Along with improving efficiency, the study also focused on best practices from a financial level and offers suggestions for departments to be better stewards of taxpayer money.

Mount Pleasant Village President Dave DeGroot said the purpose of coming together to discuss ways for collaboration was to “get us out of our respected municipal silos.”

“It didn’t take too much meeting for us to come to the conclusion that we all suffer the same problems,” DeGroot said. “I don’t know where this study is going to go because we have to take it back to our own municipalities and I know that the public is going to weigh in on it as well … I’d like to think because we’re able to get out of our silos then we’re creating a better peace among our greater community.”

Henken said the two research organizations plan to evaluate the financial impact of some of the following options and plan to share that information with policy makers in the future.

Options without merging

In the coming years the South Shore Fire Department and Caledonia Fire Department will likely be facing a demand to expand their staffing.

For South Shore, as Foxconn becomes a larger presence there will be a greater need for services.

As Caledonia grows in population and sees more commercial and industrial development along I-94, there will also be more need for services. Recently, the department received a federal grant to increase staffing but once that funding runs out, it is unclear how the department plans to maintain that staffing.

Some more immediate actions that can occur without merging departments include creating a policy that the closest unit responds to emergency calls.

Henken said that could impact roughly 600 calls per year.

Other immediate actions include consolidating training, group purchasing on supplies and sharing fire apparatuses.

Another option could be amending current agreements, particularly between Caledonia and the South Shore departments, which share Fire Station 10 in the Franksville area.

Currently, the agreement between the two departments mandates that each department have three firefighters at the station at one time.

“If you look at the call volume surrounding that station, there’s no justification for needing six people at any one point of time,” Henken said. “It’s a byproduct of a political arrangement, which makes sense from an equity and political standpoint but doesn’t necessarily make sense from a cost efficiency standpoint — particularly when Caledonia has a need for staffing at its other two stations.”

Another policy to amend is Racine’s three person to an ambulance mandate.

“That is not the national norm, the national norm is two,” Henken said. “That is a provision in the union contract so this is not a situation where the mayor or the fire chief can say we’re going to go down from three individuals to two on an ambulance. But if there was a willingness to look at that and to negotiate that that could potentially could result in some financial savings or redeployment of resources.”

Henken said the most controversial option in the study is closing one Racine fire station.

“When we look at response times and call volumes in the City of Racine, I think a case could clearly be made for eliminating one of the Racine stations,” Hanken said. “There is an overwhelming capital budget bill coming due for the six Racine stations. Each of them has some very severe capital needs.”

Merging departments

There are several different options in the study that include merging departments.

“That’s where you really have some of these response time issues, where in those communities there’s a closer station but because of the contractual arrangement the closer station is not serving them,” Henken said.

One option includes merging South Shore and Caledonia, which have long collaborated. There is an option to merge South Shore and Racine but, Henken admits, that option is very unlikely.

And the final option, which could take several years to implement if the right steps are taken, is to merge all three departments and having one fire chief for the eastern part of the county.

“There are clearly barriers there,” Henken said such as cost sharing and the union agreement. “There’s all sorts of issues that would have to be resolved before you actually do that. But I think, clearly, this study is suggesting that there’s some promise there if the political will was there to look at it.”

Informational boards explaining the different options are set to go on display at the municipal buildings in eastern Racine County, which residents can look at when they stop in to pay property taxes or conduct other business.

Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave said this study is important to the county to best serve the population.

“At the end of the day, nobody cares who answers the call as long as somebody answers the call as soon as possible,” Delagrave said. “The priority needs to be, as we engage in this decision-making process, what is actually best for our citizens in terms of service? If that can be the overriding factor, political will can be overcome.”

With funding and personnel finite and the population aging, Delagrave said the study should inform the different departments of the options that are available to them and they can find a way to resolve some issues.

“This is the data, it’s completely from a neutral source,” Delagrave said. “Now that you have it, figure it out.”

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©2019 The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc.

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