A series of stories presented recently in the Daily Times has addressed the challenges of operating fire and EMS services in today’s complex world, with area leaders in firefighting saying it is becoming increasingly difficult to find staff members to conduct their business.
Watertown Fire Chief Kraig Biefeld spoke recently about the demands placed on the city’s fire department in 2021, saying one of the things that worries him most is simply being able to recruit and retain staff members qualified to respond to emergency calls.
Biefeld said there are fewer people interested in joining the fire service these days, which, in turn, means fewer people entering the EMS field.
Biefeld has been with city’s fire department since June of 1993 and has been fire chief since 2018, after serving as assistant chief since 2008. He said he has seen the number of firefighting applicants drop over the past five years.
“We have seen the need for additional staffing, due to increases in call volume, responsibilities and the needs of the community,” Biefeld said.
The chief has witnessed requirements increase from a person needing to have Firefighter I certification and an EMT Basic license, to the need for Firefighter II certification and all applicants being required to be paramedics.
Biefeld said that he pays attention to the fortunes of other departments in the area and sees some that are struggling, while others seem to be hanging on and maintaining staffing.
“The days of having a large number of people to volunteer has been declining and those who have been on the department for a longer time are looking for others to help,” he said. “When other departments have low staffing, it affects their neighboring departments and puts a tax on their departments, as well.”
Biefeld did not hide the fact that Watertown is having trouble finding qualified personnel.
“In the past, firefighter positions would not open much and people would wait a year or two on eligibility lists before being hired,” he said. “Now, we are getting candidates coming right out of school, or while they are still in school. There is competition for firefighter positions throughout the area and firefighters are now able to pick areas based on location, pay and benefits.”
Watertown firefighter candidates need a minimum of Firefighter II certification and be licensed as a paramedic within one year of hire to be qualified.
“Not too long ago (a firefighter) had to be (licensed as a paramedic) before being hired,” Biefeld said. “The fire department currently has a staff of 24 full-time personnel in this division that work on a 24-hour basis on three shifts of eight, with a minimum staffing of six,” the chief said. “Personnel work an average of 56 hours a week or 2,912 hours per year. This staff provides a dual role, in which they have to know two disciplines, one as a firefighter and one as a paramedic.”
Biefeld said there have been considerable changes in how fire departments operate due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are finding that other cities, to the east of us, have been increasing their base pay a lot to attract firefighters and have been using benefits, such as lateral transfers, to recruit new firefighters,” he said. “In 2020, we implemented the ‘lateral transfer’ language.”
A lateral transfer looks at an applicant’s years of service and allows the department to, maybe, start a new person at a different rate based on their years of service. It, essentially, allows a firefighter to transfer their years of seniority to a new job.
The Watertown Fire Department was organized in 1857 and began providing EMS services to the area in 1975. In 1993, the first paramedic service in Dodge and Jefferson counties was established at the Watertown Fire Department.
Statistics provided by the department indicate its run volume has increased nearly 30% since 2009, but staffing in that same time period has only increased to just shy of 4%. The net cost, per capita, for the Watertown Fire Department is $107 per resident, while the average fire department in the state costs $159 per person.
Biefeld discussed how his department serves the greater Watertown area. He described Watertown as “an urbanized city” with 68.9% being residential properties, 21.6% commercial properties, 6.5% manufacturing, and 3% making up other types of properties. It covers 12.4 square miles, surrounded by rural, farmland communities.
“The Watertown Fire Department covers an area surrounding the City of Watertown through a fire and EMS contract with the townships of Watertown, Milford, Emmet, and Shields, for a total of 101.1 square miles of fire and EMS coverage and provides EMS transport service to the Township of Lebanon,” Biefeld said. “The city’s population was estimated to be 23,945 in 2020. The population in the rural coverage area is 3,215. The current population served by the Watertown Fire Department is approximately 27,160.”
Biefeld explained how mutual aid duties work for the Watertown Fire Department and how the department receives mutual aid when it is needed. Mutual aid is the ability to send, or receive, apparatus and personnel to help a neighboring community.
“This can be for multiple calls that overtax an agency, to large incidents, such as a fire or multiple-vehicle accident,” Biefeld said. “When there are large incidents, fire departments in the area will use the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System.
He said MABAS has been able to help with mutual-aid response, adding that, in 2020, the Watertown Fire Department responded to 106 requests for mutual aid, while receiving mutual aid 25 times.
In Waukesha County, many volunteer, or paid, on-call fire departments have had to merge to ensure quality staffing and adequate response times. Biefeld said this is likely coming soon to this area.
“This is happening in all parts of the state and country,” Biefeld said, adding there are discussions about departments in the Dodge and Jefferson County areas moving to shared services, merging, or even shutting down, due to a lack of personnel to respond. “This is the same for EMS agencies, because there are fewer and fewer people to staff an ambulance”
According to Biefeld, there are things the state could do better to help fire departments deal with staffing shortages.
“Some of the issues at the state (level) are the training it takes just to be able to have a firefighter who could enter a fire,” he said. “ In the past, it allowed departments to do in-house training. Now, most of that is done through the technical colleges. The classes at technical colleges limit the number of people who attend, due to distance from home and the hours needed to dedicate to training.”
Biefeld said major concerns of the Watertown Fire Department these days include recruitment of qualified personnel and once they are here, retaining them. He said some of the areas that the department is looking at are its culture, pay and facilities.
Biefeld said he wishes he and his department could travel back in time to the days before the COVID-19 pandemic, to lessen the staffing crunch for fire and EMS.
“I would like to see it go back to the interest and support that was there 20 years ago, after the 9/11 attack, when people wanted to volunteer and get into public service for fire, EMS and police,” he said.
Biefeld said there are some departments in the Watertown area that have him worried in terms of their short staffing, because the citizenry is being put at risk.
“It is happening now,” he said. “We are seeing departments unable to respond to their own calls and needing mutual aid, due to staffing or apparatus issues. We are also seeing a lot of departments being unable to provide mutual aid to other departments, because they are unable to meet the staffing requirements to respond.”
Biefeld does not see a “quick fix” to cure Watertown Fire Department staffing shortages.
He said money can be invested to recruit and retain members, but when all other departments have a need to fill positions and start at higher rates perhaps, than Watertown, the city is again stuck in a conundrum.
“Another fix would be to have a lot more people become interested in fire and EMS, and go through the training, but it would be a couple of years before someone would be ready,” he said. “I do not see a quick fix, because there are staffing shortages throughout Wisconsin and the United States.”
Editors note: Story has been changed to point out in Jefferson County, Lake Mills School District does have a mask mandate.
JEFFERSON — My body, my choice.
My child, my choice.
In another era, these signs might have made an appearance at an abortion rights rally.
But in the context of Monday night’s Jefferson school board meeting, no one had any doubt that these phrases referred to the district’s controversial mask mandate.
Jefferson was one of two districts in the county, the other being Lake Mills, to establish a mask mandate at the start of this school year. And before Monday’s meeting was over, two school board members had reversed their prior votes, ending the requirement.
An audience of hundreds filled the Jefferson High School auditorium, and even before the final school board vote, the masks most had worn into the auditorium had been ripped off.
Ahead of the vote, the district heard from dozens of speakers. Of these, only four spoke in favor of the mask requirement: the parent of a child cancer survivor, a pediatric nurse, a longtime area doctor, and a parent who works at a nursing home.
The rest spoke out against masks, asserting that the face coverings caused their children stress and mental anguish, made it difficult to breathe, and hindered child development.
Scattered around the auditorium were large, regularly sized signs that carried statements like “Mask Mandate is Tyranny,” “Not Our Dictator,” and “You Work for Us.”
The public comment period stretched for hours, with only a handful of speakers in favor of continuing the district’s existing mandate and the vast majority against.
Melissa Walhovd led off the public comment period, advocating in favor of a continued mask mandate while COVID-19 transmission remains high. Walhovd said district decision-makers should weigh in on the side of accommodating all students and allowing them to participate fully in school activities.
“All means all,” Walhovd said. “Every student is entitled to an equal education and equal opportunity. That’s not just for the healthy. It’s not just for those in the majority. It’s not just for the wealthy.”
She said the school district should protect the most vulnerable students, such as those who are medically frail or those too young to get vaccinated.
Parent Georgia McWilliam credited school officials with trying to do their best during a year-plus of unprecedented challenges, but begged school board members to leave the mask choice up to parents.
She asserted that mandatory mask-wearing increases isolation and damages students’ mental health.
McWilliam cited large increases in mental health issues among teens, linking that to mask wearing, although there are many other contributing factors that experts have cited for the rise, chief among them the isolation students experienced when schools went virtual.
McWilliam, who served many years as head of the Jefferson Middle School Parent-Teacher Organization, said she does not want parents to be told to open-enroll their students elsewhere.
(To read more comments, go to The Daily Times website at wdtimes.com for the story, “Citizen comments strongly tip toward ending masks.”)
First, the board heard from county epidemiologist Samroz Jakvani, who noted that the county’s rolling average of COVID-19 cases is at 19 a day, up from 0 to 2 over the summer.
Meanwhile, local positivity rates are at about 20%, he said, quite a bit higher than the 5% epidemiologists would like to see to be able to control virus spread throughout the community.
In August, the county saw an “astronomical increase” in COVID-19 cases as the more infectious delta variant rolled in, with six deaths recorded since this surge began.
The worst effects of the disease are still seen among older people, although the people coming into hospitals are younger and younger, as the oldest age group is the most highly vaccinated, Jakvani said.
With area schools having been open for only two weeks, it’s still really early to see the effects of the mask mandate (or lack thereof) in area schools, he said.
However, Jakvani noted that there had been COVID-19 cases in the run-up to the school year among sports teams. In-school transmissions remained minimal and mostly occurred in districts without mask mandates, although there was one case of a child in a school that required masking being infected by a seatmate during an unmasked lunch period, he said.
In other countries the delta variant has already swept through, the disease hit hard early and then petered off, so following that model, Jakvani said that case rates might decrease in the next two to three weeks, “but the opening of schools may complicate that.”
Jakvani then addressed common concerns submitted by parents and other concerned district residents via Google Form ahead of Monday’s meeting.
Masks work, he assured attendees, saying they prevent the vast majority of exhaled droplets from spreading to other people.
That’s how the virus spreads, he said, via droplets. Individual virus particles, while extremely small, are not generally found on their own, but rather travel through the air in large and fine droplets and to some degree, aerosols.
Asked about whether masks block oxygen or cause carbon dioxide to build up, Jakvani said these are gases and they go right through the mask, while droplets are trapped.
“We know without doubt that masks reduce COVID-19 transmission,” he said, saying that they are safe for children age 2 and up, and noting that surgeons wear them every day.
As to masks’ impact on emotional well-being and social impact, he said there could be some minor impact, but that is alleviated by unmasked outside activities and interactions.
As to mental health impacts, Jakvani acknowledged that there has been a significant increase in mental health concerns among adults, children and teens in the wake of all the disruptions caused by the pandemic — including isolation, virtual school struggles, job losses and general instability, not to mention the impact the disease itself has had on some families.
“However, it is a mistake to conflate the impact of the pandemic (as a whole) to wearing masks (in specific),” he said, stating that there is no evidence backing this conclusion.
While most children have not generally been seriously impacted by COVID-19, the delta variant has been causing stronger effects in children, he said.
Also worth considering are concerns that infected children could spread the disease to more vulnerable adults, Jakvani said, or that they could themselves develop “long COVID,” which does happen to a percentage of youngsters and adults, whether or not their initial case was considered to be mild.
After Jakvani’s presentation, the board opened up the floor to parent comments and concerns. Around 20 people had signed up to speak ahead of time, and after that, the board extended the time period for public comment multiple times so that all present who wished to speak could add their input.
After all of the public comment concluded, close to 10 p.m., board members had the opportunity to debate the issue further before taking a final vote.
Board member Tanya Ball said that she stood with the parents in the audience, the common theme of whose comments is that they wanted to have the freedom to decide what was best for their children.
She said the mask requirement was “creating a division that didn’t have to be there” and called on the board members who voted in favor of the requirement the previous month to reverse their stance.
“Your role is to be responsive to the beliefs and value of the community,” Ball said.
Dick Lovett, who had previously voted for the mandate, thanked every speaker for their passion and advocacy.
“Everyone sees things in different shades,” he said. “I hope you understand we all care. We care for you. We care for the district. We care for parents.
“Our goal is that all students have the ability to learn,” he said, noting that education encompasses more than just academics.
To move forward in the best interests of all children he said, the board and community need to work together as a team.
In the interest of “healing,” he said he was changing his vote.
Board member Thomas Condon said that he felt the district’s hard-line approach to quarantines in particular was hurting students by causing them to miss critical instruction and social interaction.
“If there’s no virtual option, and at this point I don’t think we’re allowed to have a virtual option, kids are missing a lot of school,” Condon said.
Seth Ebel, who had voted in favor of the mask mandate and related mitigations in August in response to the delta surge, said he understands a lot of the parents’ frustrations.
However, he still wanted to trust the experts who assert “these are the best measures we can take to keep our kids in school, to keep them learning,” Ebel said.
In the interests of serving all students, staff and community members, including the most vulnerable among them, he said he had to vote his conscience to continue with masks for now.
“It is not our choice,” Ball said. “It is their choice,” she said, referring to the parents in the audience.
After questioning the credentials of the epidemiologist, who is working on his doctorate but does not yet have a Ph.D., Condon moved to amend the district’s COVID-19 protocols back to what the board had approved earlier in August, making masks optional and relaxing the contact tracing and quarantine rules.
When the final vote came, school board members Dick Lovett and Matthew Peltier reversed their earlier votes to go with the majority in striking the mask and more stringent contact tracing requirements, with Ebel and board President Terri Wenkman voting to keep COVID-19 protocols at their existing level.
Repeating their “no masks” vote from August were Ball, Condon and Fleming.
After the vote, as the room erupted in cheers from the audience, a couple of board members addressed the need to respect people of all opinions.
Fleming, though he had voted against the mask mandate two times, said “I don’t think it’s fair everyone sits there pointing fingers at certain board members ... If we act disrespectful as a parent, what do you think we are modeling for our kids?”
Wenkman addressed some speakers’ criticism that the school board did not represent the community.
“Every board is stronger when there is debate,” she said. “When there is disagreement and debate, that is a board that completely represents our constituents. If everyone always thinks the same, that is when there is stagnation,” she said.
JUNEAU — Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt said he’s down 14 correctional officers and the shortage has become “extremely taxing” on his staff, who are filling overtime shifts.
The overtime shifts have become so problematic Schmidt said he was “forced” to make the decision to temporarily close down one of the pods in the jail.
“Closing down the pod will have significant fiscal implications, but we believe we can absorb most of those (costs) in the 2021 budget as a result of our vacancies and other cost-saving measures we have implemented in 2021,” he said in an email Monday to Dodge County supervisors. “It is my goal to re-open the pod in January if possible to limit the fiscal implications in 2022.”
When the Daily Times asked Schmidt how many pods make up the Dodge County Jail he could not discuss its layout because it’s a “security issue.”
He did say inmates are not “doubling up” in the jail, but would not comment on whether inmates are being sent to other area jails to ease his staffing concerns.
“We are considering several options that have not been finalized at this time and I am not prepared to discuss (them) until plans are finalized,” he told the Daily Times.
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Margo Gray, who serves as jail administrator, said Jefferson County has not housed any Dodge County inmates on contract.
“We will from time to time have one in our facility on a warrant or probation officer hold, but that is common for any facility to have that,” Gray said. “They remain in the facility until the agency issuing the warrant is able to arrange transport.”
Dodge County Human Resources Director Sarah Hinze said Tuesday there are a total of 77 employees assigned to the jail (excluding the occasional jail transport team of 19 employees). Of the 77 employees, there are 51 correctional officers in the Dodge County Jail, she added.
In the same email to supervisors, Schmidt said he is trying to fill the vacancies, but it takes three to four months to train an individual before the person can work on his own.
In a Sept. 5 email to the Dodge County Judicial and Public Protection Committee, Schmidt said he had five individuals he was conducting background checks on.
According to a job posting for a jail/corrections officer on the Dodge County website, the position pays between $21.61 to $23.85 an hour.
The minimum required qualifications are a high school diploma or equivalent and a Wisconsin Jail Officer Certification (or attain it within one year from the date of hire).
Schmidt said his office will provide all the necessary training to the new employee.
He said “all options are on the table” for hiring correctional officers.
“I have requested the human resources committee to consider retention and recruitment incentives,” Schmidt said. “I have not had a decision from them at this point.”
Schmidt said he has a recruitment video highlighting his employees. He is also looking at other paid advertising options and recruitment fairs.
“I believe that we will be able to stabilize what is going on in a few months and our staff is committed to doing so,” Schmidt told supervisors in Monday’s email. “We ask for your support and assistance in reaching that goal quickly so we can get back to operating at full capacity.”
The Dodge County Jail joins the ranks of several of the state’s department of corrections facilities seeking jailers.
“Some Wisconsin Department of Correction facilities have struggled with longer-running job vacancy issues,” said John Beard, Wisconsin Department of Corrections communications director. “However, overall staff vacancy rates at Wisconsin Department of Corrections have gone up over the past year.”
Beard said the state Department of Corrections has taken many steps to try and improve their recruitment and retention efforts.
“We’re once again increasing our presence at job fairs, which were greatly limited over the first year of the pandemic,” he said. “We explore new strategies like recruiting through social media, truck wraps (vehicle decals) and the television spots during Milwaukee Brewers and Milwaukee Bucks games.”