Kewaunee County EMS echoes national need for first responders
UPDATE: The Kewaunee County Board approved supporting state legislation to provide tax incentives for volunteer fire and EMS personal.
They are the ones who answer the call in the middle of the night, putting their lives on the line to help the community at a moment’s notice.
However, since 2015, there's been a 16 percent drop in volunteer first responders nationwide, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
In Kewaunee County, local leaders are set to vote Tuesday to support a state bill that would give volunteer first responders some money back.
It’s called the B.R.A.V.E. Act, which stands for Beginning Retention, and Attraction for Volunteer Emergency personnel.
“All of our staff is paid-on-call, so basically they are paid to be ready to respond whenever the pager goes off,” explains Joe Steiner, director of Kewaunee Area Ambulance Service. “They’re not full time, but yet they have to be available to respond.”
Time is just one challenge facing local fire and EMS services when recruiting volunteers to become first responders; another is age.
“I have people who are ready to retire, but they also feel guilty about retiring because they don't know who is going to fill their spot,” Steiner said.
The Kewaunee Area Ambulance Service has three locations in the county. At its Kewaunee location there about about 26 employees, but Steiner says ideally there should be 36.
It would help relieve on-call pressure from those who are doing much more than the 60 hour per month requirement.
“A lot of us are taking between 200-300 hours a month to fill the gaps, to make sure the schedule is filled and there is someone ready to respond 24 hours a day,” Steiner said.
The B.R.A.V.E Act is supposed to give some incentives to first responders.
It would create three refundable tax credits for retention, training, and mileage and equipment.
“It's going to help, I think encourage some people and, maybe some people who have been in it for a while it might help encourage them to stay in it. But the bigger commitment is the time, it's not really the money,” said Steiner.
While county EMS is understaffed, the Kewaunee fire chief says he's fully staffed right now, but turnover happens often and does recruiting on an annual basis.
“A lot of times it's word of mouth,” Chief Greg Hlinak said. “You get people that you say, ‘Hey, want to join the fire department?’ and they say, ‘Oh, I’ve never thought about that,’ and they eventually do and we get them on board.”
Right now the bill is in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.
The Wisconsin Fire Chief Association hopes to have a hearing scheduled by late September.