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Could the Racine area's fire departments come together? What would stand in the way?
RACINE METRO AREA

Could the Racine area's fire departments come together? What would stand in the way?

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RACINE COUNTY — There’s no room for waiting around on the Caledonia Fire Department, the smallest fire department east of the Interstate in the county.

Nine frontline firefighters (along with a handful of the department’s ranking officers) attended a meeting Wednesday at Caledonia Village Hall about the future plans for their department. Part way through the meeting, all nine of them had to leave the building because they had to respond to a fire and a medical call back-to-back.

“We don’t have any more resources,” Caledonia Battalion Chief Tim St. Amand said before the other firefighters returned. “We’ve got to do something.”

Racine and South Shore fire departments both have more firefighters than Caledonia, although CFD is set to hire six new recruits thanks to a federal grant, closing the gap at least a little bit.

Several Caledonia firefighters have said they like the idea of consolidating with the other departments, a concept furthered by findings included in a study by the Wisconsin Policy Forum that was released last month.

Mergers would likely improve response times, especially in more rural parts of the county, and thus better medical outcomes for patients. It could also lead to fewer occasions when there are not any firefighters/paramedics ready to respond to emergency calls from Caledonia.

But there’s a lot of groundwork needed before that could happen.

‘Something we do not want to rush’

South Shore Fire Chief Robert Stedman said he wouldn’t want to merge with Caledonia unless Caledonia’s staff increases by 10 to 15 firefighters.

South Shore’s minimum staffing is 17 at any one time, in Caledonia that number is closer to 10 to 12, even though the departments cover similarly sized areas.

Stedman doesn’t want Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant taxpayers to pay for Caledonia’s firefighters. So, for a merger to happen, Stedman would prefer either Caledonia expand its staffing first — something the Caledonia Village Board has been wary of, citing financial concerns. Or a plan could be set up through which Caledonia taxpayers cover their more local expansion without putting undue cost on the other municipalities.

“The financial thing is huge,” Stedman said during a Thursday meeting of the South Shore Fire Department Fire/EMS Oversight Board. “You can’t have one level of service south of Highway 38 and another level north of Highway 38.”

And both Caledonia’s leaders and Stedman are wary of joining with the city Fire Department.

Caledonia Trustee Kevin Wanggaard said he doesn’t want the other municipalities “to subsidize the City of Racine.”

Racine Fire Chief Steve Hansen said in an email, “We are still assessing the report and it is something we do not want to rush. It’s too important not to take our time to review the entire report and get input from our elected officials before commenting.”

He added, “Based on the Common Council meeting Tuesday this week and comments made by alders at that meeting in addition to the Fire/EMS study, they have other concerns that they would like to see addressed as well.”

At the Council meeting on Tuesday, aldermen brought up concerns about why joint fire and EMS services were being discussed, but not serious race issues facing the community.

Baby steps

Changes are almost certainly coming to how fire and emergency services are provided on the east side of the county. But what those changes might be and how they’re paid for probably will not be decided for months.

Mergers are “actually pretty common throughout the country,” Wisconsin Policy Forum President Rob Henken said at a Caledonia Village Board meeting.

Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant’s fire departments merged at the start of 2009 to create South Shore, a transition that’s largely been viewed as positive.

Henken has repeatedly pointed to the collaboration of the nine northern Milwaukee County municipalities that formed the North Shore Fire Department as an example of what could happen in Racine County. Regarding North Shore, Henken said that those nine municipalities save a cumulative $2.8 million per year thanks to the merger and have also improved the level of service across a 25-square-mile area.

Closest response

One thing that most leaders agree on is that a “closest unit response” policy should be instituted on the east side of the county. What that means is that the emergency vehicle or station located closest to an emergency responds to a call, regardless of which department’s jurisdiction the call originates.

“John Q. Public, wherever they may be … they’re just happy with the quickest, best, happiest most efficient emergency response,” Caledonia Firefighter Lucas Kotschi said.

The idea has been kicked around before but never caught much traction, in part because those systems can get complicated. For example: If Racine responds to a call in South Shore’s jurisdiction, how does each department get paid? And what happens if South Shore responds to way more calls in Caledonia’s jurisdiction than Caledonia responds to in South Shore’s, putting added resource strain on one department than another?

South Shore is already responding to a fair number of calls in Caledonia when Caledonia gets overloaded; there have been 110 such incidents from Jan. 1, 2019 through the end of November.

“We’re all going to benefit by that (having closest vehicle),” Stedman said, “And who’s really going to benefit by that is the citizens.”

Instituting a closest vehicle policy could also make it easier to fully come together in the future.

“If you can’t work together on that level, you can’t consolidate,” said Rick McCluskey, chair of South Shore’s oversight board.

A major hurdle that could stand in the way of a merger has already been cleared: Racine County already has a single dispatch center.

But some municipal leaders are not gung-ho about a merger, in part because some feel the municipalities should remain at least somewhat separate.

“I want to be very cautious about how we do this,” Caledonia Trustee Tom Weatherston said, a sentiment shared by Mount Pleasant Trustee Gary Feest.

“I don’t consider myself as a resident of Racine at all,” Weatherston continued, adding that he remains wary of “hooking up with the city.”

Edited: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that South Shore Fire Department had responded to 110 calls in the Village of Caledonia in November 2019 alone. SSFD has actually responded to 110 calls in Caledonia from Jan. 1, 2019 through the end of November.

“You can’t have one level of service south of Highway 38 and another level north of Highway 38."

Robert Stedman, South Shore Fire Department chief

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