The end of a fire department
The story of vehicle breakdowns, antique fire trucks and the neglect of a fire department
Two weeks prior to me meeting with Park Ridge Fire Chief Brian Lepper, the department had responded to a fire in another community.
Their fire truck made it to the fire on May 10 in the town of Stockton in Portage County. But while crews were able to put out the fire and no one was hurt, the Park Ridge fire truck didn’t make it.
“It’s the first time we had to call a tow truck,” Lepper tells me on a Thursday afternoon at Emy J’s in Stevens Point. “It’s not the first time we had a truck experience a mechanical failure on an emergency scene.”
Lepper is explaining to me why no one was particularly surprised in the moment. For one, it’s the department’s oldest truck, built in 1974. Lepper tells me when they need parts for it, the parts dealers assume that a truck that old must be used for ceremonies, parades and such. They’re always shocked to learn it’s actually a service truck being used in live fire scenes.
It’s the oldest of the small village’s three trucks, but none are exactly new. They also have a 1980 fire truck and a 1993 truck. In other words, the department’s newest vehicle is nearly 30 years old, and its oldest is getting close to 50. If they were cars, they’d all qualify for collector’s plates.
The breakdowns are an embarrassment to the village, and to the firefighters there. It’s a symbol of a fire department left in decline by its village. Lepper himself put in his four month notice in February, and now several of the department’s volunteer firefighters are leaving.
It’s not likely the department will be able to recruit any new volunteer firefighters. After all, they only started paying anything under Lepper’s insistence when he became chief — and that pay is much lower than other departments. And those departments, such as Plover’s, have much newer equipment that’s more exciting to young firefighters.
It’s another story of neglect of a fire service, something critical to public safety. This is what residents pay taxes for. The Wausonian reported recently on how the Wausau Fire Department hadn’t seen a staffing increase since the 1970s, despite call volumes doubling in the last two decades alone.
Maybe that’s why I thought it interesting enough to write about this small village in Portage County. I generally focus this publication to Wausau, almost exclusively; but once in a while something is just too eye-opening not to do some reporting on. And it’s good to know what our neighbors are up to.
Years of neglect
Park Ridge is a small village completely surrounded by Stevens Point; many probably don’t know about its existence. Its population is a little more than 500 people. If you’ve visited Stevens Point, you’ve probably driven past it without knowing you’d done so.
I sat down recently with Steve Menzel. Menzel was elected to the village of Park Ridge in a recall election that saw several Park Ridge elected officials ousted.
The fire department was a pretty big source of that recall, he says. Residents didn’t feel listened to. When the village decided to build a new fire station that year, residents didn’t think it was the right move. It’s not that the fire department didn’t need the building — plus new trucks and other equipment — but some felt the village should be taking a step back to decide whether it even should have a fire department in the first place.
As both Menzel and Lepper explain, the department itself has about eight fire calls per year in the actual village. Most of the calls to which the department responds are aid calls outside the village — Stevens Point, Plover, Hull, etc. Unlike in Marathon County, in Portage County ambulance calls are handled by the county, contracting with various fire departments.
Some residents, including Menzel, signed on to a lawsuit over alleged open meetings violations - a zoning change that would have allowed the fire station was done without a public hearing, residents allege. The frame of the building was on its way to the village when the injunction halted the project.
Park Ridge spends $47,000 per year on its fire department. The total village budget is well under $1 million. So it’s easy to see how it might be challenging to maintain a fire department and buy new fire trucks and a new building. It means borrowing a lot of money, and while interest rates are still pretty good, that money needs to be paid back.
Both Menzel and Lepper agree that the village never properly planned for equipment replacement. That’s not a recipe for success. The department has had multiple vehicle failures in the past. The most recent incident, on May 10, saw the village’s 1974 truck towed from a fire scene in Stockton.
Long- and short-term solutions
Would it make more sense to contract with other municipalities? The village hired a consultant to assess just that. Menzel says by August the village should have a long-term plan for its fire department, whether that means keeping it or not.
But meanwhile, Menzel says they need to come up with a short-term solution. Chief Lepper will be gone by July after resigning, the assistant chief resigned Monday, and of those surveyed by Menzel about whether they would be staying, only two responded. Of those, only one is staying. (As of my meeting with Menzel last Thursday.)
Lepper didn’t give a much more optimistic assessment of whether firefighters would be sticking around.
Consolidation of fire departments and municipal cooperation are becoming the new trend. Rothschild and Schofield merged to form Riverside Fire District in 2017. Weston and Rib Mountain merged their departments to form SAFER Fire District prior to that. It’s not just cost savings on equipment and other shared expenses, though that’s a big part of it; it’s easier to maintain staffing levels when two staffs are combined.
I thought this story about Park Ridge would be interesting because it possibly serves as an example of a little fire department that stuck around despite the trend; though it’s likely the end for the department. It’s hard to imagine the consultant hired to study the issue will suggest keeping the fire department, because of the enormous costs involved and the difficulties in recruiting at this point. (Though contracting could come with its own costs, such as the need to upgrade some roads for the larger trucks of other departments. Lepper says one of the village’s roads have been chip-sealed so much, that’s all that’s left.)
Menzel told The Wausonian that the village should have a long-term plan in place for the fire department by August. In the short term? It’ll be interesting to see what the village comes up with.
The village board had a special meeting Monday night, and authorized Menzel to take “all steps necessary” to secure an agreement with the city for fire protection service, according to a colleague in Stevens Point. The agenda item pertained to securing fire protection as of July 1.
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