How a Wis. pilot program is attracting local applicants
After struggling with turnover, the City of Antigo Fire Department created a homegrown program to solve its problem
Dubbed as "America's Dairyland," Wisconsin is famous for its cheese and dairy products. About 90 miles from Green Bay, sits Antigo, Wisconsin, a rural town known for its small-town, friendly atmosphere.
Like many small towns, residents enjoy a sense of community that the hustle and bustle of larger nearby cities struggle to provide.
Antigo is no different. And for over 100 years, the city has been served and protected by the City of Antigo Fire Department, a combination department made up of members with strong, long-standing ties to the community.
At the helm is Chief Jon Petroskey, who was born and raised in Antigo on a dairy farm and has been a full-time member since 1993.
Over the years, Petroskey worked his way through the ranks, moving from lieutenant to deputy chief, and eventually taking on the title of chief in 2008. His father, who also served as a volunteer firefighter, influenced Petroskey's decision to consider a career in fire/EMS at 18 years old.
"It just kind of grew from there," he said.
But over the years, Petroskey noticed an alarming trend that many similar small-town rural departments struggle with – the recruitment and retention of members.
"We struggle with having people come here, and then a short time later, within a year or two, they end up going back to their hometown, which is usually a bigger community of some sort," he explained. "People end up going away from our little community since it's so rural … and it's difficult."
The department was losing members on a regular basis – a serious problem given the closest career departments are around 40 miles to the north and 26 miles to the west of Antigo.
A home-grown program quickly became one solution to their problem.
Attracting local applicants
The department started having discussions in early 2020 with city council members, the mayor and city administrator on how to successfully attract and retain residents as members of the department, Petroskey said: "We want to hire somebody that's here in Antigo, who was born and raised, and has ties to the community.”.
The council tasked the department with coming up with a proactive approach, which turned into the Paramedic Pilot Program. The program's mission, Petroskey said, is to encourage local applicants to consider a career with the department.
"Our credentials were, automatically, you had to have Firefighter 1 and Paramedic to apply to the department," he said. "Eventually, we just said … let's just have Paramedic. If you don't have Firefighter 1, we'll teach you."
The paramedic class, however, is a year-long commitment, and many potential applicants do not already have the class completed. Petroskey explained that most applicants are unable to quit their full-time job to go to school for a complete year: "They can't just quit their full-time job and still maintain an income for mortgages and everything."
As a result, the department eventually worked out a compromise – pay applicants an hourly wage per hour.
"What I explained to the council is that when they're going to school, they're only going 40 hours a week,” he said. “So, we're not paying them the 56 hours; we'll pay them 40 hours a week. With the 40 hours a week, they're still making an income to continue somewhat of a livelihood like what they were doing in the past."
The department is covering the cost of tuition and books. The catch? Potential applicants must sign a five-year agreement. If an applicant leaves within five years, they must pay the department back on a prorated basis.
"Our intention was that if they're a local candidate, they shouldn't worry about signing a five-year agreement," Petroskey clarified.
Their first applicant was the definition of homegrown: She was already technically part of their department family.
Seizing an opportunity
About three years ago, Erica Kostichka broke her leg and was laid off from work for about seven weeks. With 16 years of retail experience, Kostichka had been working full-time as a store leader at Goodwill. During that downtime, she decided to sign up for an EMT class.
"It was only $600. I figured if I didn't make it, it was no big deal," she said.
Instead, she ended up thoroughly enjoying the class.
"I started to learn more about our area and what the requirements were and where I could go with a potential career in EMS," Kostichka said. "I knew you had to be paramedic and fire certified in Antigo."
She later became a paid, on-call EMT for the department.
In the fall of 2019, Kostichka wanted to sign up for a paramedic class, but the class had already started: "I went ahead and got the certifications for fire," she said. But she still needed the paramedic certification that was required for a job in Antigo.
Later that summer, she decided to quit her full-time job at Goodwill to focus on her EMS career. A couple of days after quitting her retail job, she got a call from Petroskey.
"The chief called and said, 'Hey, we're thinking about doing this program, and I think you'd be a great person to try it out.' And I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' I've been waiting for an opportunity like this.'"
At that point, the department hadn't received final approval yet on the program. When the agreement was made, Kostichka was already halfway through the program.
"We covered the rest of her expenses for the rest of the year," Petroskey said. "We were able to hire her at 40 hours a week to send her off to school and give her some type of income to live off of."
Kostichka graduated in December and was hired full-time with the department in August 2020.
"I just cannot express how happy I am to be able to be on a crew and be able to apply what I learned," she said. "If somebody is dangling a tuition reimbursement in your face and you truly want to do this, it's a no-brainer to take it."
Making the commitment, she said, was easy. "I had to make a commitment for five years, but even if it were for 10 years, I still would have made the commitment. I don't plan on going anywhere."
The agreement, she said, helps the department focus their time and attention on serious applicants. A new candidate, who started part-time with the department last July, has already started the program. But the department isn't stopping there.
Going beyond the pilot program
Lt. Corey Smith, who also serves as the union president, shared that the pilot program is a good place to start, but the department has some other ideas in the works.
"For instance, we're developing a cadet program where we get some high schoolers involved at an early age where we bring them down and show them what we do," he said. "Then, when they get to the age where they can take the classes, we can help them take the classes while they're still in high school."
The ultimate goal, Smith said, is to bring the same high schoolers into the paramedic program after graduation and later hire them as full-time members.
The high school course, which has received approval from the committee, was put into Antigo High School's agenda for the 2021-22 school year. It will serve as a credited class for juniors and seniors.
"I'm hoping to have this as a feeder so that I have kids that are born and raised going to Antigo High school, coming down to our station as an explorer or cadet program saying, 'Hey, I want to be involved in this agency. How can I do this?'" Petroskey said.
The pilot program, according to Smith, has already resulted in a positive outcome for the department: "I'm excited to see where this goes and I can see this as a long-term benefit for the department," he said. "Someday, it would be nice to be to the point where we don't need the pilot program, but it can be a long-running program until we get to that point."