The town of Presque Isle is just one in the area — and the entire country — dealing with a recruitment problem for its fire department and emergency medical service staff.
Reasons for that vary, be it the aging population of Vilas County, whatever morale issues there may be within the department or changes in state law that require more time for the same training full time, paid members of fire departments in cities go through.
Whatever the case, recruitment is an issue.
The Vilas County board formed an ad hoc committee in January 2019, with a mission to address the growing concern regarding availability of paramedic and EMS in Vilas County and the feasibility of enhancing service countywide.
Committee members, including outgoing Vilas County emergency management director Jim Galloway, spent most of last year gathering information and meeting with different fire department and EMS personnel along with town officials in Vilas County.
Late in the year, the county board received a recommendation from the committee to, basically, not take any action at this time.
At the Feb. 6 meeting of the Presque Isle Town Board, Vilas County board member Chuck Hayes said the ad hoc committee was “in some respects, DOA (dead on arrival) at its first meeting.”
He said Galloway had mentioned the wrong approach had been taken and Vilas County “should never have gotten into a county solution.”
“That anything in the future had to be a group of towns getting together ... the county was out of it,” Hayes said.
There was some discussion spearheaded by town chairman Marshall Reckard later in the meeting about possible regionalization at some point.
In the meantime, though, the immediate need for Presque Isle was something that needed to be addressed and at a special meeting Monday, the town board took a step in that direction.
Bonus structure idea
After meeting for approximately 20 minutes with fire chief Doug Wolter, the town board approved a concept of what Wolter referred to as “just a starting point to open up discussion” on the fire department and EMS recruitment issue in Presque Isle.
The board’s approval of the concept wasn’t a final approval of the proposed numbers, but rather a vote of confidence for what Wolter and others were doing to try and enhance recruitment efforts.
“Hopefully, get some ideas rolling around,” Wolter said. “These are things we’re talking about, things we’re looking at.”
Included is a new active member of the fire department or its EMS with training completed receiving $500 for the firefighter and $750 for a member of the EMS.
A handout Wolter gave to the town board said once those active individuals reach the two year mark with training and probationary time completed, there would be another $500 for the firefighter and another $750 for the EMS member.
The probationary period is currently six months.
“It can be as little as 90 days, but it’s six months,” Wolter said. “If you’re already dedicated enough to go through the training, I think it’s a good starting point to show that you’re gonna stick around for a little while.”
Reckard, who like town supervisor Cathy Logan Weber, has years of experience as an emergency medical technician, indicated he had no problem with the direction Wolter was going.
However, he referred to another long time member of the Presque Isle EMS, Al Eschenbauch, and what he thought of new recruits getting these bonuses.
“Has that thought ever entered (the discussion) as you guys are going through this?” Reckard asked Wolter.
“Somewhat,” Wolter said. “This still has to go back to the fire house and get our numbers figured out and some of that discussion will come up then. We’ll have to discuss with the members.”
He explained the “completion bonus structure” would be for new members.
“Now, it may feel unfair to the other members who’ve put their blood, sweat and tears in here,” Wolter said. “But times change and it’s not always fair.”
His father, town supervisor Carl Wolter, also a long time member of the fire department, didn’t have an issue with that approach.
“As a long standing member, I would rather see new people come on board than for me to get any kind of a bonus,” he said. “We need help.”
Eschenbauch indicated he was encouraged where things were going as well.
“I think the idea of us coming to you to see if you even like the idea of (subsidizing) a sign up bonus ... I think it’s a good one,” he said. “I think the fact we seem to have reached that much of consensus, the town seems supportive of having of sign up bonus, I that’s great.”
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at [email protected].