Wis. taxpayers help FD increase FF/medic staffing to pre-pandemic level
Chippewa Falls taxpayers approved exceeding a levy limit to hire more fulltime firefighter/paramedics
By Audrey Korte
The Chippewa Herald
CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. — After months without being able to operate shifts at full staff, Chippewa Falls Fire and Emergency Services is now back to having as many fire and rescue employees as it had prior to the pandemic.
The department has filled five vacancies but is still looking to hire three more people in the coming year by utilizing funds from a public safety referendum passed in November 2022.
At the end of March 2023, Chippewa Falls Fire and Emergency Services reported being short-staffed. The department was operating with seven-person teams because of a lack of qualified applicants for open positions. Typically, the department operates with eight-person teams per shift.
In March, the agency needed to hire four more firefighter paramedics to bring it up to its standard of eight people working per shift. In the spring, a longtime member of the team retired, leaving the department short five people to reach its roster numbers from previous years.
The department also had three new vacancies in 2023 — jobs created as the result of a November 2022 public safety referendum. That meant that in the spring of 2023 the department had eight open positions — five to reach previous staffing numbers and three new jobs meant to help the department handle increased numbers of calls and a growing Chippewa Falls population.
Chippewa Falls taxpayers agreed to exceed the levy limit by $1.2 million per year starting in January 2023 to add three full-time fire/EMS positions as well as a new police officer, plus provide a first responder pay raise to the police and fire departments. Although the referendum was viewed by first responders as a win, the number of candidates to fill those jobs was less than robust initially.
But as of Aug. 15, Chippewa Falls Fire and Emergency Services Department Chief Jason Thom reports the department has successfully hired five individuals, bringing the department back to its previous capacity.
Thom said the department is doing well with hiring.
"We're making progress. We started out just after the first of the year with eight vacancies. That includes the three new referendum positions," he said. "Currently, we have five of those eight positions filled with a few other candidates on the horizon, either graduating in December or further out than that. So we do have to have candidates out there, which is nice."
Thom said two of the positions have been filled with transfers from other departments.
"That's been obviously helpful for us to be able to take on lateral transfers," he said. "We get candidates that come in here with some experience and that makes the transition a lot easier, I think, for training and everything else."
The other three hires are recent graduates.
Now that the department has hired five, it has just three more vacancies to fill. Because of COVID-19 interruptions in job training and hiring, those positions have yet to be filled.
However, Thom is hopeful, he said.
"Prospects look much better than they did last year. We've been busy recruiting and training. We're out there finding candidates and according to the tech school enrollment is up — the classes are filling up for firefighter paramedics. That's all good news," Thom said. "Now, it's not a quick fix for us, per se, but in a year, we'll have a lot of candidates so that's all good for all of us, all the surrounding departments because everybody has staffing issues."
Chippewa Falls Fire and Emergency Services Department is a full-time career department that manages two fire stations in the city. A full roster consists of three shifts with eight firefighter/EMTs, the fire chief, a fire inspector and a department administrative assistant.
Thom said the department is just beginning the process of trying to fill the open fire inspector position, which typically comes from an in-house promotion rather than an outside candidate. He said the position has been vacant because of staffing shortages.