The Great Resignation: Firefighting
The Wausau Fire Department is asking for nine new firefighters as the department struggles to staff fires, fill positions
When the first engine pulled up to a garage fire that threatened to spread to the rest of the east side house, it was staffed by two firefighters: An engineer and a lieutenant.
If that doesn’t sound very robust, well, it’s not. Ideally there would have been several more firefighters on hand, but when duty calls, firefighters do what they need to do. Wausau FD was no exception. One firefighter got the hose out and managed to train it on the fire, bracing it between his legs to keep the large 2 1/2” hose steady while the other operated the water from the engine. This hose is typically so unwieldy that it takes several people to hold on, as can be seen in later in a video of the scene.
In a fire, every second counts, and there was no time to wait for the next responder. Later in the scene firefighters can be seen running to the front of the house, parking their ambulance further away to leave space for the other engines to park in front of the house.
The fire, which took place Nov. 11 in the 400 block of 11th Street, was put out and firefighters were able to contain the fire damage to the garage, with only some smoke damage hitting the house itself.
But it was a great case study, Wausau Fire Chief Robert Barteck says. The new chief used it to make his argument that more firefighters are needed in Wausau. He’s asking for nine total.
Why? Here’s some reasons he cites:
Better staffing: When the fire call came through, two of the three ambulances at station one were out on emergency medical calls. And they don’t just walk away from those calls, or even abbreviate care, Barteck explains; so they’re not available to respond to the fire until they’ve finished caring for their patients. The last responder to the fire took 23 minutes to arrive on scene. (The first engine was there in around three minutes, and other vehicles arrived well before the five minute mark.)
ISO rating: Fire departments are judged by something called an ISO rating — that rating helps determine homeowner insurance rates. The logic goes, the better your local fire department is, the more likely they are to respond and put out the fire, so the less damage. That means less money insurance companies will have to pay out, so they can offer lower rates. But it’s also a good way to evaluate your fire department. Wausau’s is rated 2 of 10 (that’s good, 1 is the best score), though Barteck tells The Wausonian they somehow got credit for having a training tower which they actually don’t.
Safety: That includes the safety of the firefighters and potential victims of a fire. The case study fire Barteck presents featured homeowners who’d escaped the house prior to the fire department arriving. But what if they hadn’t? That’s a dilemma, Barteck explains. Regulations would prevent the firefighter from mounting a rescue because there would be no one to rescue the firefighter if they were injured or trapped inside somehow. But, Barteck explained to the Wausonian, it would also be tough for the firefighter to sit and not help when they could. As shown from the firefighter who wrangled the unwieldily hose meant for several people to handle in order to save the house, they’re inclined to put themselves as risk to save others.
Recruitment: Like every other industry, the fire service is struggling with recruitment. Barteck talks about competing with hundreds when he entered the fire service - now filing jobs has become difficult. The department is planning to fill five open positions by next year, and that will exhaust the department’s hire list. They’ll have to find more. The era of lengthy waiting lists of potential recruits is long past. This year, the department had five retirements and four resignations. Many of the resignations were people going into private medial practice — two of them into helicopter ambulance services, Barteck says. As Act 10 made public service jobs less attractive, the private sector often presents safer jobs with better pay and benefits. It’s caused the Wausau Fire Department to change tactics in terms of recruitment, including putting out videos with the aid of new videographer Ethan Bares. It also means hiring below training qualifications — hiring an EMT basic and training them to be a paramedic, or hiring a paramedic and training them to the level of firefighter.
Fire calls on the rise
I put together a graph showing the increase in fire calls by year. I had incomplete data - the annual plans stopped being published online after 2014. Chief Barteck provided me with call volumes back to 2018, and I found them online from 2014 and back.
The best thing seemed to go back in blocks of three, knowing for one interval I would have to go back four years. It’s not perfect, but I don’t think it detracts from the trend the data makes clear: That fire calls have significantly increased while the number of firefighters has stagnated.
(Coded in Python via the Replit online IDE, in case you’re curious.)
You can see in 20 years the call volume has doubled, with the same staff. And calls have increased 200% since 1970, the last time the department really added significant numbers of firefighters.
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