Fire departments' preview upcoming budget season
Fire chiefs from Delafield, Pewaukee, Hartland and Lake Country Fire and Rescue plan to meet in September or October to discuss how they can make mutual aid even better.
The departments are well-versed with emergency preparedness, coordinated responses and specialized equipment. "This is something that's been going on for as long as I can remember," Lisbon Chief Doug Brahm said. He's been fighting fires in Waukesha County for 31 years and he also sits on the County Association of Fire Chiefs.
"We've come a long way in Waukesha County with what resources you can draw from to provide the services you need without exhausting your neighbors," Brahm said.
Automatic mutual aid
The primary purpose of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) is to coordinate the most-effective provision of mutual aid during emergencies, natural disasters or manmade catastrophes.
"Emergency response happens pretty seamlessly. The county works very well that way," said Lake Country Fire & Rescue Chief Jack Edwards.
"We all get the tone. We all respond at the same time," said Town of Delafield Fire Chief Paul Kozlowski.
MABAS is not designed to relieve communities of their responsibilities for providing emergency services during local crises, since all communities should still have their own first line of defense. Most departments will say needs specific to the community should still be met at a local level.
For example, Kozlowski said a new station in Delafield will be imperative to meet the needs in his community. "(The new fire station) is the hill we have to climb. Before anything else, this is what we need to think about," he said.
When a community exhausts its resources at a particular emergency — whether it needs more specialized equipment or additional firefighters, emergency medical technicians or hazardous materials' responders — it can send the call through MABAS.
"We're a pretty close-knit group, and we're always trying to help each other out," Kozlowski said.
Most fire departments agree that they need to improve how they communicate on specialized equipment purchases. Edwards said that more collaboration could improve the buying power for larger items.
"It's about being able to share certified personnel or specialized equipment; there is no reason to buy duplicates if our neighbor has it," Kozlowski said.
By researching current inventory and upcoming capital purchases, departments that regularly share equipment can avoid duplicates. Lisbon and Sussex, for example, have this down to a science. Sussex may have an equipment truck, while Lisbon may have the water tender, and both teams will respond as needed.
Dive team equipment is another great example of shared specialty equipment. Specially trained rescue teams — surface support and divers — may be called from Delafield to assist communities that don't have the gear and certifications to complete the task. "There's really no need for our neighbors on the lake to do the same thing," Kozlowski said.
Another common concern among the departments during this budget season will involve staffing for departments with paid-on-call workers and healthcare benefits in lieu of the Affordable Care Act.
"We need to do more with the same amount of money that we've always had, plus respond to the high volume of calls in the community, plus develop staff, plus apply for grants ..." Brahm explained.
A December 2012 court decision will now require fire departments to pay the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to any paid-on-call volunteer who is required to spend the night or weekends — whereas stipends were previously acceptable. The decision not only increases payroll costs but also has implications for any department's contributions to the Wisconsin Retirement System and FICA (social security).
And, like many small businesses out there, fire departments will be trying to understand and comply with new healthcare and benefit mandates.
"There's not a department around that doesn't want to be in compliance with local and state labor standards, but the (Affordable Care Act) is such a gray area ... What is the objective? How are we going to meet it and, in some cases, how are we going to exceed it?" asked Pewaukee Fire Chief Kevin Bierce.
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