Low pay and fewer single-income households have contributed to a shortage of volunteer and part-time firefighters statewide, and Lake Country is no exception.
In the Western Lakes Fire District, part-time staff members make as little as $7.25 per hour, which leads to a “revolving door” of professionals who take other jobs to earn more money, said district Fire Chief Brad Bowen. Each new hire needs at the bare minimum 60 hours of training to become a firefighter, and many often need months — or even years — of training for more complex roles.
Other firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics in Western Lakes are paid on-call volunteers, meaning they wait for calls at home and get paid only when they’re out on a call. Their wage is usually little more than $14 per hour.
According to Waukesha County Technical College, the average entry-level wage for a firefighter with an associate’s degree is $39,201, with that wage increasing to $44,940 after three years. In July, the city of Waukesha posted a full-time, entry-level firefighter job with a starting salary of $46,113.08.
Of the 140 employees at Western Lakes, only 10 are full time. The rest are paid on-call or work part time, Bowen said.
“To me, it’s an epidemic,” Bowen said. “Volunteer firefighters and EMTs are not sustainable into the future. How can you expect someone to do an essential life-saving job without paying them at a professional wage?”
Hartland Fire Chief Dave Dean said his department is in the unusual position of having a waiting list right now for volunteer firefighters. That is not the norm.
His department has two full-time firefighter/emergency medical technicians who work during the week and 55 paid on-call volunteers, Dean said.
“It is extremely hard to attract and then retain individuals for any amount of time,” Dean said. “It’s like a roller coaster ride.”
Firefighters and EMTs at the Hartland department make $14.37 per hour while they are on calls, Dean said.
“There are very few, if any, who do it for the money,” he said.
The wage comes after more than four months of training to become a basic firefighter, Dean said. Training to become an EMT or paramedic can take more than six months to a year.
Dean has been working to retain people through surveys to find out what keeps people on at the department. He lets volunteers bring their families into the station, and he hosts family events to keep his firefighters and EMTs happy.
“We’re very cognizant of that,” he said. “We really appreciate family values and encourage family involvement.”
Fire Chief Deonne Eske of the Ashippun Fire Department agreed with Dean. She said the work-life balance is essential to keep volunteer firefighters on.
“A lot of our volunteers have young families, and it can be difficult for them to come to everything,” she said. “There’s a balance between family and firefighting and everyone needs to find that balance. But it’s difficult.”
The Ashippun Fire Department is a true, all-volunteer department; the firefighters do not get paid even while on a call. Eske said that for about 10 years, she has noticed it has been harder to find people willing to join for no pay.
“It’s harder and harder to get volunteers because it’s a commitment, the training you go through. It’s a commitment to your community and your fire department,” she said. “They are very dedicated to serving the community. I have a very dedicated group of people.”
Looking for answers
Last year, members of the Wisconsin Legislature formed a council “to examine issues related to the shortage of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) in the state.”
This year, the council has recommended a number of bills to the legislature that address funding, salaries and training.
One recommendation is for an income tax credit that would allow volunteer firefighters to claim a $20 credit for each hour volunteered to firefighting or EMS. Volunteers could claim up to $1,000 per year in credits.
The council also sent a letter to the Wisconsin Technical College System recommending it increase online classes and that it offer more classes in rural areas, which are hardest hit by the firefighter shortage.
The council also recommended a senate bill that would require first responder and EMT certificates to be renewed every four years instead of every two to put less burden on those volunteers.
Bowen said something needs to be done to increase pay for volunteers. He understands Western Lakes will never have an entire full-time staff, but he would like to see some increase in pay for firefighters and EMTs who risk their lives and often deal firsthand with traumatic situations.
“We’re paying professionals — healthcare professionals — minimum wage,” he said. “What other medical provider is a volunteer or even an organization that pays minimum wage?” he said.