Wis. towns team up to combat lack of volunteers

The "operational merger" allows each to more easily tap the other’s equipment and firefighters

By Nate Jackson
The Janesville Gazette

TURTLE, Wis. — To combat a shrinking supply of volunteer firefighters, the towns of Beloit and Turtle have partnered to share their staff and resources, calling the move an "operational merger."

The fire departments will remain separate entities with their own budgets, personnel and governance, but the partnership allows each to more easily tap the other's equipment and firefighters. The partnership was accepted unanimously by both town boards this week, according to a news release.

The town of Turtle has 21 paid part-time firefighters, and the town of Beloit has 13 full-time personnel with 35 paid part-timers. Because of the partnership, town of Beloit Fire Chief Gene Wright considers his department to have 21 more people.

"Smaller communities are struggling to find quality help," Wright said. "It's hard to find people to give up their time. To fix that problem, I think we need to look at how we can work together with the resources that are there."

Before the partnership, Wright said, the two departments were limited in what resources they could provide on mutual aid calls. Now they can respond to each other's calls with whatever resources are needed without asking permission from their town boards.

Town of Turtle Fire Chief Tim Huffman said if one of his department's fire engines breaks down, for example, he could call Wright and use a Beloit fire engine in Turtle.

The same could occur if the Turtle department was understaffed, Huffman said.

"If you only have six to eight guys (on call) during the day, and there's a big call, I can tap into their guys," Huffman said. "Everybody is short on volunteers. This just helps us on manpower. Now we can combine forces."

Wright said the agreement is an "operational merger," meaning the areas served by the two departments essentially are being erased. While each department will still operate its own fire station and each chief will run his own crew, firefighters from each jurisdiction will be able to come and go from either station more freely, the chiefs said.

"If they're coming to help us out, they may be able to come and sit in our station," Huffman said. "Normally, you didn't do that."

Currently, Huffman said the Turtle department uses the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System to alert neighboring jurisdictions if his department needs assistance on a fire call. Though the new partnership won't decrease Turtle's use of mutual aid, he said it will allow the departments to better coordinate with each other on mutual aid calls.

Huffman said if a mutual aid call comes in from another jurisdiction while his department is short-staffed, the two departments can work together so neither department is stripped of personnel.

"This is brand spanking new," Huffman said. "I have more resources, and I have another group of firemen that can cover our area. I have more manpower to pull from. It will help us."

Wright, who's also doubling as the fire chief in Clinton for another five months, said he sees the move as a solution to combat understaffed rural departments, which often lack access to volunteer firefighters.

"Light departments can mesh together and work well," Wright said. "This is a step in the right direction for our department. It's not a Band-Aid. It's something that's going to fix our problem here. I think there's room for it to grow in the area."

Wright said the partnership will not cost additional money. Rather, he said, the move could save money should the departments share the costs of purchasing equipment.

On top of assisting each other, the departments will train together and ultimately be "closer knit," Huffman said.

"We're all excited about it," Huffman said. "It's always kind of fun when you work with other departments. We'll be building every year."

Wright added: "It's an informal but formal thing. It's like Mom and Dad running the show. It's not a takeover. It's an agreement to share our resources and to cut the borders out."

Copyright 2018 The Janesville Gazette

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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