TIMOTHY STEIN, FOR THE JOURNAL TIMES
A Caledonia firefighter pulls apart smoldering material from a
motor home at 4541 Carter Drive on May 12, 2018. Caledonia Fire
Chief Richard Roeder is working to get six new firefighters added
to the department, at least partly through a federal
JAKE HILL, FOR THE JOURNAL TIMES
Caledonia firefighter/EMT Steve Checki performs his
station's in-depth monthly inspection of its equipment.
Pete Wicklund / TIM STEIN, For The Journal Times
A Caledonia firefighter assesses conditions at a house on March
24, 2017 at 3212 Newman Road, Caledonia. The Caledonia Fire
Department is short-staffed, according to department officials. But
adding staff comes with a cost.
Pete Wicklund /
Jonathan Brines /
CALEDONIA — The village has some decisions to make. Leaders of the Caledonia Fire Department believe 18 more firefighters need to be hired, but the cost of that would be in the millions and is more of a long-term goal.
For starters, Fire Chief Richard Roeder and Battalion Chief Jeff Henningfeld want to add six new firefighters. They said it would be the first time the department has actually increased its staff since 1999.
“The Village of Caledonia really has to decide: ‘How are we going to provide fire protection for ourselves?’ ” Henningfeld said at the March 4 Village Board meeting .
To get the ball rolling, Henningfeld and Roeder asked the Village Board for permission to apply for a federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant.
“We’ve been scraping and scrounging for the last 10 years,” Roeder said. “Let’s take the big step now. Let’s increase our staffing.”
Six years ago, Caledonia’s application for a SAFER grant was successful. That money allowed the village to hire two firefighters to keep its roster numbers at current levels of 39 firefighters, Henningfeld said.
This time around, the grant would pay for 70 percent of the wages/benefits for new hires for the first two years, and then 35 percent for year three. The municipality would have to cover the rest. The Village Board must then decide whether or not to create permanent positions for those firefighters when the grant expires.
Henningfeld estimates that the cost to taxpayers would be between $150,000 and $160,000 for each of the first two years, and a little over $400,000 in year three. If the six firefighters are retained after the grant’s expiration, the village’s cost would be “Somewhere north of $600,000” yearly, Henningfeld said.
“$600,000 in four years? We’ve got to do some long-term planning if we’re going to do this,” said Trustee Lee Wishau.
The main reason Henningfeld and Roeder provided for needing more firefighters was so that the village could become self-reliant.
As communities in southeast Wisconsin continue to grow, fire departments are anticipating increased demand for services, while still being expected to keep response times low.
National Fire Protection Association standards call for 15 firefighters to respond to every structure fire. Henningfeld said that the village never has 15 firefighters on duty at any one time. So other departments — primarily South Shore, as well as Oak Creek — are called in to augment initial staffing.
South Shore Fire Chief Robert Stedman said that his department will never ignore a call from Caledonia.
“We’ve had a partnership with Caledonia for 20 years. We just deal with it like everyone else,” Stedman said.
Caledonia and South Shore share a firehouse on Northwestern Avenue in the Franksville area.
Despite that partnership, Roeder doesn’t want to rely on another department to protect Caledonia. If a major fire breaks out in another municipality or there’s some other extreme circumstance, the village could be left waiting.
“Our neighbors are going to get busy,” Henningfeld said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know that we can ever staff this fire department 100 percent to accommodate all of our calls, all of the time. But we need to start looking at how to do it most of the time.”
Getting more staff will provide other challenges. For example, Station 12, located at 6040 Douglas Ave., which primarily serves the village’s east side and the neighboring villages of Wind Point and North Bay, is not big enough to easily fit many more personnel.
“In the short-term, it is going to be uncomfortable working and living in that firehouse … At some point the village is going to have to look at relocating some fire stations,” Henningfeld said. “There are going to be some growing pains.”
Trustee Kevin Wanggaard said that he agrees with Henningfeld and Roeder: The village needs more firefighters.
“If there’s more buildings here, or the potential for more buildings, staff is going to have to increase to cover that size anyway,” he said. “We have to address it incrementally.”
Trustee Jay Benkowski fears if the board doesn’t act, then the village could be liable for inadequate responses by its understaffed fire department.
“We are substandard,” he said.
But where would the money come from?
The 2019 budget doesn’t have those added wages budgeted in, even if the village gets SAFER money. No one would be hired until September under the grant, according to Henningfeld, so Caledonia would only have to pay three months’ wages for six personnel in 2019.
Trustee Fran Martin acknowledged that taxes may have to be raised to fund additional staffing. And Wishau suggested that adding part-timers to the existing department staffing could save money while also filling in gaps.
The possibility of reworking contracts with the villages of Wind Point and North Bay for fire protection was also discussed by the board.
Hiring new firefighters could lead to some savings in reducing overtime wages. Combined over the last two years, the village has gone approximately $300,000 over-budget in firefighter overtime, Caledonia Assistant Administrator Toni Muise pointed out.
Henningfeld said that raising ambulance fees, currently set at $600 per trip, could be a good idea; Benkowski agreed it was worth considering. Caledonia would then be following the lead of South Shore, which is trying to raise its fees to $1,000 minimum per trip.
Not to mention, if Caledonia increases its staffing, it won’t have to call other departments as often, thus keeping ambulance-fee revenue within the village.
Roeder said that a lot of the new money coming into the village is being directed toward business-friendly tax-increment districts, which could leave emergency services languishing for funding increases.
“If we keep building in TID districts or we keep creating TID districts, none of that money comes back (immediately) into the operational budget of the village,” Roeder said. “It makes it very difficult for you all (the Village Board) to keep people on to protect all this stuff we’re building.”
TOWN OF BURLINGTON — Melting snow and freezing temperatures created danger for drivers and emergency personnel on roads across southeast Wisconsin Thursday. But teamwork, from emergency personnel and civilians, helped ensure safety, and even saved a life.
Another meeting set
Henningfeld and Roeder are scheduled to return to the Village Board for a special meeting at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 12.
Before voting to allow Fire Department administrators to submit an application for the SAFER grant, the Village Board agreed at its March 4 meeting that more information is necessary. Specifically, Martin requested more exact estimates about the taxpayer cost of new hires.
The grant application is due March 22.
Still, there’s no guarantee Caledonia would even receive the federal funds if it applied for the grant. Henningfeld likened the situation to “a lottery ticket.”
“It’s the way the wind blows in Washington,” he said. “There is no such thing as a guaranteed handout.”
In 2018, Congress approved nearly $350 million for SAFER grants.