Part-time posts could bolster Fire Department recruitment

Published on: 4/9/2013

Hales Corners - The paid-on-call model just isn't working for the village anymore, Fire Chief Michael Jankowski told the Village Board on Monday.

Hiring a part-time staff of firefighters and emergency medical responders will cost the community $150,000 more annually, but also make it possible to have enough qualified people to respond to fires and other emergencies - and to do so in a more timely fashion, he said.

The Village Board decided to hold off on considering the proposed change until April 22, due the fact that two trustees and Village Administrator Michael Weber were not present for Monday's discussion.

That said, the Committee of the Whole, which has the same membership as the Village Board, has already recommended the plan.

Slow response, recruitment

Right now, Hales Corners has two part-time employees at the station at all times. While those two can immediately answer any ambulance calls, they must wait for two on-call firefighters to drive to the station before being able to respond to a fire. The longer it takes for the two to arrive and suit up, the longer a fire could burn uncontrolled.

Jankowski predicts that changing to a part-time staff will cut fire response times in half and allow the village to send two ambulances out at once.

On-call firefighters are paid based on actual responses. An on-call shift with no calls means the firefighters are not paid for that shift.

So few people are interested in the arrangement locally, the department has about 12 vacancies that need filling.

Department administrators have gotten creative with recruitment. They've posted on Facebook and Twitter, advertised openings in the city newsletter and even turned to church bulletins. They've put up fliers around the village, held recruitment seminars and worked with Whitnall School District to create an apprenticeship program at the high school. They've even put advertisements on the fire engines, all to no avail.

After two years of effort and lack of results, the department is ready to throw in the towel on the old model.

On-call barriers

"It's been a challenge," Jankowski said. "It's a more senior community here so my ability to recruit has been extremely limited."

Many factors, including pre-employment restrictions, competition from other fire departments and a slow economy, all hinder recruitment of paid-on-call staff, Jankowski said.

A recruit must meet many requirements. They must live within a 15-mile radius of the station, go through one year of firefighter training at a technical college and then go through in-house training.

After the department's investment in a recruit, it can only offer them a limited-experience, limited-pay position. On-call staff members are paid less than their part-time peers and only get job experience when they're called. Many recruits leave for neighboring departments that offer part-time positions.

"I develop them, send them to school, get them in and have them here for a few years, and then they get hired somewhere else," Jankowski said.

Part-time pros, cons

The new system, slated to begin June 1 if passed on April 22, will allow the department to pull recruits from a much larger area. Instead of needing to be within calling range, new recruits will be able to drive to work for their shift and wait at the station for a call.

Those seeking part-time employment will need to be trained before they get hired, which Jankowski hopes will cut losses in training investment.

The new system will come with a $150,000 price tag. The village has enough money to pay for it this year thanks to savings from a switch in its health insurance provider. Funding for the long-term, however, hasn't been allocated.

"The challenge will be to sustain this system over the long run," Weber said in a phone interview. "Over the next few months, the board will be discussing how that will be accomplished."

The village could try to increase the amount of money it's granted by the state or officials could ask for a referendum to raise taxes.

"This (the Fire Department's new staff model) is a very high priority and it's a system that we need to utilize going forward," Weber added.

Next Step

WHAT: Village Board vote on Fire Department staffing model

WHEN: 6:45 p.m. April 22

WHERE: Hales Corners Village Hall, 5635 S. New Berlin Road