Personnel from more than 30 volunteer fire departments in Douglas and Bayfield counties will gather from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday in Brule for the annual "Be Somebody" recruiting event.
“The 'Be Somebody' event has been very, very positive, as far as both getting volunteers and raising awareness in the community that the service is provided by volunteers, and helping us get equipment that we need and facilitates that we need,” said Brule Fire Chief Keith Kesler.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 92 percent of Wisconsin fire departments are staffed mostly or entirely by volunteers. They’re in high demand.
“We have departments throughout Douglas County that are in need of members now,” Solon Springs Fire Chief Jonathon Brostowitz said.
Volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians don’t go on every call. Most work full time.
“It’s a combination of the people that are working different times of the day, different days of the week that provides the coverage,” Kesler said. “No one is expected to participate 100 percent. Give what you can and together the team will make it happen.”
Recruiting volunteers is crucial county-wide, as first responders regularly call in other local departments for mutual aid.
“The bigger the team, the stronger the team,” Kesler said.
Calls vary, ranging from a dog on the ice to vehicle crashes, structure fires and missing person searches. It’s neighbors helping neighbors.
“We are all like one big family, extending into others by helping our community,” Brostowitz said. “When responding to calls you end up making new friends.”
Volunteer fire departments rely on fundraisers like pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners, grants and gifts from businesses, organizations and individuals to keep equipment up to date.
A state bill introduced in May seeks to provide some monetary incentives for volunteer first responders. The Beginning Retention and Attraction for Volunteer Emergency personnel, or BRAVE Act, would provide a trio of tax credits -- a $300 credit for new volunteers, doubled after five years; a credit of up to $400 for travel and minor equipment purchases and hourly training costs capped at $500.
“I really appreciate the fact that we have legislators who have recognized that something needs to be done to reward the volunteers in fire and EMS for their service and to aid in their recruitment and retention,” Kesler said.
A number of Douglas County volunteer fire departments also utilize the Service Award Program, which was enacted by the state in 2001. Through it, the state puts nearly $400 a year into a retirement program for each firefighter, if the municipality matches the grant. Volunteers only eligible to receive the funds after they turn 60 and have provided 20 years of service or more.
Saturday in Brule, visitors may see helicopters, ambulances, fire rigs and more.
“Members from all over the two counties will be there to answer any questions and show you some of what we do as volunteers,” Brostowitz said.
Everyone is welcome to the free event, whether they are considering volunteering or just want to say “thanks” to the people who do.