By Shereen Siewert
Citing a sharp rise in the number of calls to the Wausau Fire Department, city officials this week will review a request to add 12 firefighter paramedics to the roster within the next two years.
A proposal to spend roughly $2.74 million to address staffing deficiencies will be reviewed Tuesday by the city’s Finance Committee.
In 2021 the department had its highest call volume in history, according to a memo from Wausau Fire Chief Robert Barteck. The department answered 6490 calls for service. The COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed and has stretched the department’s resources and further exacerbated staffing problems, Barteck said.
A discussion over firefighter staffing has been ongoing for months. In November, the Public Health and Safety Committee examined safety aspects of increased call volume vs. staffing levels before recommending hiring at least nine new firefighters. Then in December the Human Resources Committee took a look at deployment options to increase staffing at each of the city’s three engine companies before recommending hiring 12 new firefighter/paramedics, an increase Committee members said would allow for time off on each crew, help control overtime and allow employees adequate time in the calendar for paid time off.
Ultimately, the Wausau Fire Department seeks to increase daily minimum staffing from 15 to 18 to better respond to emergencies and adhere to national recommendations.
Hiring nine new staffers would meet the need of adding a firefighter/paramedic on each of the three engine companies but would require an increase in overtime, Barteck said. Hiring twelve would meet the need of adding one firefighter/paramedic on each of the three engine companies.
In his memo, Barteck says staffing has remained stagnant for more than 50 years. In 1970, the Wausau Fire Department had 60 full-time firefighters. Today, 51 years later, the department has 61 full-time sworn firefighter/paramedics and one administrative assistant for a total of 62. In 1970 the department responded to 2,038 calls for service. In 2020 the department responded to 6,120 calls for service.
This represents a 2% growth in staffing levels despite a 200% growth in call volume over 51 years.
“In addition, the Fire Department’s responsibilities have drastically increased to encompass Paramedic Level EMS, Hazardous Materials Emergency Response, Water/Ice Rescue, a large variety of Technical Rescue disciplines, and progressive
Fire Prevention/Code Enforcement,” Barteck’s memo states. “The department is drastically different in size of responsibility and scope of work than it was in 1970.”
The estimated annual payroll and benefits cost of one entry-level firefighter/paramedic in 2022 is $93,177.72, plus uniforms, turn-out gear, and equipment. The total including all equipment for each person hired is estimated at $100,782.72, according to city documents. Costs in 2023 and 2024 are expected to increase for hires made in those years.
Funding options range from the use of American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, Staffing for Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant, tax levy increase through a referendum, and the use of future Tax Increment District (TID) funds, city documents state. The SAFER grant, open for applications now through Feb. 4, provides funding for hiring firefighter/paramedic positions for three years and leaves the municipality to continue funding future years. FEMA will notify all applicants of grant status no later than Sept. 30.
The Finance Committee meets at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau. See the full packet here.