Wis. Volunteer Fire Dept. About to Be Extinguished

July 8, 2013
Sun Prairie officials have decided to create a combined fire and EMS department that would eliminate the volunteer department that's been serving for more than 100 years.

July 08--The Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department, which has been putting out fires since 1891, is about to be extinguished.

The Sun Prairie City Council voted last week to move forward with the creation of a combined fire and EMS department that would be operated by the city. The plan calls for the volunteer fire department to disband on Jan. 1, 2014.

Mayor John Murray said it's simply a case of public safety trumping tradition.

"This is no disrespect to the Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department," Murray said. "They are a lot of great men and women that have done a lot of good things for this community and I'm hugely respectful of that.

"But showing respect for their efforts and the history of that, that's fine. But that's not your reason to not move forward on something that enhances public safety the way this does."

Murray said the issue comes down to response time. He said the SPVFD has an average response time in the range of seven minutes, compared to an average response time of two to three minutes for the city-run Emergency Medical Service.

"I think the citizens of Sun Prairie deserve to have a fire truck with trained men and women at their door in less than seven minutes," Murray said.

"Our EMS is a full-fledged professional paramedic level service and they have people at the station 24/7, and when a call comes in they have people at the scene usually within two minutes."

Fire chief Tory Strauss, however, said the issue is about more than response times.

"What the city wants is control," said Strauss, an SPVFD member for 12 years and chief for 1 1/2 years. "That's the No. 1 thing and whatever it costs them to do it, they will spend it.

"We've offered to make the changes they want in order to give them the same service that their own department would give. They do not want to negotiate with us. There has been no negotiating with us."

Strauss said he asked the city last year for funding to put beds in the city's two fire stations to allow for full-time coverage, but was denied.

"They're saying we won't do what they want," Strauss said. "But when we've asked, they won't give us the funding for it, so we can't."

Last May the SPVFD added four full-time firefighters to staff the stations during business hours Monday through Friday. Strauss said those four, along with an administrative assistant, will lose their jobs.

"I'm going to lose my job, too," Strauss said. "I put in well over 40 hours a week as fire chief and I make very little to nothing. So, yeah, it's tough."

Murray has a different take on things. He said the SPVFD has resisted proposals for upgrading service.

"If the Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department had been coming in year after year saying we can go 24/7, we can provide a higher level of service, I guess I would be a little more open to that discussion," Murray said. "But they haven't. I had to put the money in my budget two years ago to get the four people over there, over the objection of the fire chief. That's not how it should be, in my opinion."

The city is applying for a federal grant to help with the transition costs and plans to spend $46,000 on a consultant to help work through issues.

Murray said a full-time fire department would add an estimated $450,000 to the city's $25 million annual budget. That will require an average increase of about $40 a year in property taxes for city homeowners.

Strauss said those numbers are understated and estimates the costs will be more like $1.5 million per year.

Strauss also said he was disappointed that Fire Fighters Local 311 supported the change.

"The union is supporting a plan that is firing firefighters," he said. "I don't understand that. They just want to get their own people in."

Despite the hard feelings the proposed change has engendered, Murray said the city is open to hiring volunteers to the new fire crews.

"There are a lot of great, trained men and women over there," Murray said. "And quite frankly, a lot of them have quietly said they would be interested in coming over and working for the city because of the training and the professionalism and the job security.

"We think there are a lot of opportunities for the men and women (with SPVFD) to come over and fill those spots. We're not reinventing the wheel here. This is the model that 162 communities across Wisconsin have adopted successfully."

Strauss said he would be interested in working with the full-time fire department, but is skeptical that he'll get the opportunity.

"I'll probably have to go work for the city," he said of his future plans. "If they'll hire me, which after going through this, I highly doubt. We've been trying to get some guarantees out of them ... are you going to hire us? And they won't give us an answer. The answer always is, 'Well, you can apply.' When they won't commit to anything, that gives us the feeling that we're all going to be gone."

In the meantime, Strauss insists things will be business as usual with SPVFD.

"We've committed that we're going to give the best service we can until our contract is up at the end of the year," he said. "We're not going to walk out or anything like that."

Copyright 2013 - The Wisconsin State Journal

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