Germantown faces challenges hiring on-call firefighters, says too pricey to restructure department

A barn burned down on Pleasantview Road in Germantown on Aug. 7. The barn and its contents were a total loss. The fire department’s response times to all calls exceeded the national standard by nearly four minutes.

A barn burned down on Pleasantview Road in Germantown on Aug. 7. The barn and its contents were a total loss. The fire department’s response times to all calls exceeded the national standard by nearly four minutes. Photo By Germantown Police Department

Sept. 25, 2013

Germantown — Banners calling for local heroes that are displayed throughout Germantown hold a much deeper meaning. They are part of the village's recruitment strategy to attract paid-on-call firefighters — a struggle that has taxed the village over the last few years.

The Germantown Fire Department's call volume has increased by 57 percent in the last decade, but staffing has stayed relatively stagnant.

Due, in part, to its use of paid-on-call firefighters, the fire department's response time in July was nearly double the standard of four minutes set by the National Fire Protection Association.

Nationwide, fewer men and women are willing to be paid-on-call firefighters, said Ken Willitte, manager of the public fire protection division with the NFPA. The NFPA sets the nationwide standards for fire departments. Germantown is no exception to the national trend of a decreasing paid-on-call candidate pool.

The Germantown Fire Department has four part-time and four full-time employees. All but Chief Gary Pollpeter pick up paid-on-call shifts. In addition, there are 22 strictly paid-on-call employees. They are cross-trained as firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

"We are seeing a generation of people who may not be as focused in giving back to the community and doing those type of activities," Willette said. "They are saying 'when I'm off work, I'm off work, I want to be with my family, work in the house,' so it has created competition of time."

Germantown's paid-on-call shifts have traditionally run from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Monday through Thursday. The weekend paid-on-call shifts run from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Friday to Monday. The Fire Department is staffed with full-time and part-time employees from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

In an effort to alleviate the demand on staff, the Village Board on July 2 approved paying paid-on-call employees an hourly wage to be at the fire department during the weekend shifts. This will continue until Dec. 31 on a trial basis when the board can review its cost.

"The village isn't left in a shortfall, it's covered," Village President Dean Wolter said. "There are people there to do the job."

Response times vary

Due to the size of the village, call volume and staffing at any given moment, response times in Germantown vary. In July, the fastest first responder times were 0 seconds and 34 seconds, followed by a 2 minute and 3 second response — the longest was 21 minutes, followed by a response time of 17 minutes and 49 seconds. The average response time in July was 7 minutes and 38 seconds.

"A 7-minute response time in a village this large, to me, that's not too bad at all," Village Manager Dave Schornack said.

NFPA standard 1710 says the first responder vehicle for all emergencies will be on scene within four minutes from the time they are alerted to an emergency. The second responder should arrive within eight minutes. Every second counts, too. Cardiac arrest is reversible in most victims if it's treated within a few minutes, according to the American Heart Association. The AHA also says "immediate treatment is essential to survival of cardiac arrest."

Because of staffing levels, the Germantown Fire Department can't always get to every call. On Sept. 16, Pollpeter said there were four emergency medical service calls within five minutes. The Menomonee Falls Fire Department had to take one of the calls on Squire Drive and Mequon Road because Germantown did not have the manpower to cover all four calls.

Paid-on-call stretched thin

Being paid-on-call can take its toll.

Paid-on-call employees are required to work two weeks out of every month. They are not paid when they are on-call, only if they respond to a call. They cannot leave the village or drink alcohol on those days. They also do not receive any benefits.

"We only have so many people and they are not paid to stay (at the fire stations)," Pollpeter said. "It's a special person who can do this. A person that will stay home for two weeks out of the month including holidays and weekends. You're going to miss some birthdays, you'll miss some holidays, you'll be maybe late for work, you'll miss some sleep. It's another job."

Because of the demand on time, the number of paid-on-call firefighters nationwide is dropping.

"Our paid-on-call has gone down to a point where we really can't get three scheduled shifts to work and some people are doubling up and taking multiple shifts on and they're not able to separate that from their normal lives," Wolter said. "It's hard to schedule life if you have back-to-back on call (shifts) for two weeks at a time. Some people were taking three weeks at a time."

More staff would alleviate some of this stress.

In the Midwest, the median rate of volunteer firefighters for communities between 10,000 and 25,000 people was 1.37, according to figures tracked in 2010 by the NFPA. Germantown has 1.45 volunteer firefighters per 1,000 people. The median rate of career firefighters per 1,000 residents in that population range is between 1.05 to 1.39. Germantown has 0.2 career firefighters per 1,000 residents.

Full-timers could be costly

The Fire Department has requested 18 additional full-time firefighters for 2014. The plan is to continue with the current structure and continue to recruit paid-on-call firefighters.

Adding 18 full-time firefighters would cost about $1.8 million — money that Wolter says does not exist.

"Where am I going to get that and where do we take from the services we have now?" he said. "Overall, we have a good balance. We just need more help in the paid-on-call area."

The village's 2013 general fund budget is $14.2 million. The fire department's 2013 budget including emergency medical services is $1.6 million, or 11.4 percent of the general fund budget, Schornack said.

Pleasant Prairie, a community with almost identical population that covers 33 square miles, has 26 full-time employees and 17 paid-on-call/part-time employees, also cross-trained in fire fighting and EMS. Germantown covers 35 square miles. Pleasant Prairie's general fund budget totals $13.1 million, with $3.2 million of that going to the Pleasant Prairie Fire & Rescue Department. Pleasant Prairie responded to 407 more emergency calls in 2012 than the Germantown Fire Department, according to information collected from both departments.

State limits levy increases

Even if the Village Board wanted to raise taxes to fund additional staff, a levy increase is limited by state law to net new construction. That means taxes could only be raised by 1.24 percent in 2014.

The Village Board has no plans to become a full-time fire department, Wolter said.

"We can't support that by any means," he said. "If the village decides as residents to say 'we expect a full-time fire department, we want that today,' you'd have to go out and put that to a (referendum) vote."

However, the village has discussed contracting with an outside company to provide ambulance services on the weekend, Schornack said.

Staffing additions, if any, will be discussed as the Village Board begins to review the 2014 budget. The estimated cost to hire a full-time firefighter is $100,000, Schornack said. That's exactly what the village paid out in overtime in 2012. They paid out $98,559 in overtime to the handful of full-time and part-time employees for 3,700 hours that year, according to village records.

Overtime kicks in after the full-time and part-time employees work 40 hours per week.

A firefighter's day doesn't always end when it's supposed to. Hourly shifts end at 6 p.m. If a call comes over at 5:45 p.m., the workers on that shift respond and typically don't return until 7:30 p.m., Pollpeter said.

"We all help each other out. We go into Richfield, Falls, Mequon and if we need help they are here for us also," Pollpeter said. "I'm blessed to have the staff I have, the officers, the deputy chiefs, and the people committed to making sure the trucks get out the door and they are available in the village....They are hardworking, committed and dedicated to the Fire Department and the residents of the village of Germantown."

For now, the village will continue its recruitment of paid-on-call firefighters. There are currently three going through training.

A Safety Fair is also scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Oct. 5 at Fire Station No. 2, W18752 Edison Drive. The public is welcome to learn more about the fire department, see stove and fire demonstrations throughout the day, view an extrication, see Survive Alive house demonstrations, participate in an obstacle course and other activities throughout the day.

23,800 (additional 6,218 people in two towns)

Municipality Population (2010 census) Calls in 2012 (fire and EMS) Employees Total coverage area Persons per square mile
Germantown 19,749 1,474 4 full-time; 4 part-time; 22 paid-on-call 35 square miles 573.8
Pleasant Prairie 19,719 1,881 26 FT; 17 POC and PT 33 square miles 591.7
Cudahy 18,267 2,104 25 FT firefighters 4.76 square miles 3,833.6
Menomonee Falls 35,626 2,765 14 FT; 34 PT; 80 volunteers 33 square miles 1,082.3
De Pere (also serves towns of Ledgeview and Lawrence) 2,162 28 FT; 14 POC; 1 secretary 24.22 square miles 2,055 in De Pere


WHAT: Safety Fair

WHEN: 10:30 a.m. Oct. 5

WHERE: Fire Station No. 2, W18752 Edison Drive

Average response time

Germantown response times in July 2013
7 minutes 38 seconds
Weekday, staffed response times 6:56.4
Weekend response times 7:55.5
Paid-on-call weekday response times 8:52
National Fire Protection Association standard response time 4:00

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