By Shereen Siewert

A discussion over firefighter staffing began in November when the Public Health and Safety Committee recommended hiring at least nine new firefighter paramedics. In December, the Human Resources Committee followed by recommending hiring 12 staffers, 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.

Wausau Fire Chief Robert Barteck said the SAFER grant, which is due Feb. 4, is a Homeland Security program that allows funding to help departments meet national benchmark standards for staffing. Though the additional staff won’t allow the city to fully meet recommended levels, the department would move toward that goal if the grant is successful.

Barteck said the department had its highest call volume in history in 2021, with virtually the same staffing level as in 1970, when the call level was about one-third of the current burden. The COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed and has stretched the department’s resources and further exacerbated staffing problems, Barteck said.

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. Barteck said applying for nine, rather than the full 12 staff members, would potentially strengthen the department’s application and leave the city time to determine funding sources for the additional three staff required.

“We have a great chance of getting this,” Barteck told members of the Finance Committee on Tuesday. The Committee approved his request, which was then approved by the full council later that evening.

Grant decisions are expected to be announced beginning in August and no later than Sept. 30. If successful, the department will have a 180-day recruitment window to hire the necessary staff. Barteck said work has already begun on an eligibility list to begin the recruitment process to ensure the department would meet the recruitment window necessary for the grant.

The Council approved the request unanimously.