Sauk Co. fire departments fight to retain and recruit staff

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BARABOO (WKOW) — Fire departments, especially part-time departments across the country, have struggled to retain and recruit firefighters, including Wisconsin. As calls for service have gone up around the Wisconsin Dells area, Sauk County departments report they’ve been struggling to keep up.

With 35 firefighters on staff, Chief Kevin Stieve heads one of the largest in the region, the Baraboo Fire Department. But he said they could use about 10 to 15 more.

“We have to go take care of business and we need the people to do that,” he said. “The level of time commitment and dedication that we need is huge.”

According to one of his firefighters, Lt. Brandon Green, the commitment is the hardest part.

“It’s learning to balance family commitments, business and this job,” he said.

Almost all of Baraboo’s firefighters are part-time, on-call, which means they set aside hours during the day in which the department can page them for emergency responses.

Stieve said many of the firefighters who leave tell him it’s too difficult to balance their full-time jobs or family responsibilities, which is why he believes they’re seeing fewer and fewer career firefighters.

“We may only get five to seven years,” he said.

That’s why Stieve said the department is focusing on recruiting younger. Baraboo Fire set up a fire academy with Baraboo High School and Madison College to attract applicants. He said one of the recent grads is going through their hiring process now.

Other firefighters are also working to bring more candidates to the table.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as bringing someone to training,” Green said.

Stieve said they’re currently interviewing about seven candidates who also need to go through a physical ability test, completing firefighter drills in full turnout gear like lifting and climbing a ladder, crawling through an enclosed space and carrying a dummy.

“We’re looking for able-bodied honest, hardworking people who are able to commit to the job,” he said. “We’re trusted with people’s property when we’re called to their home to take care of their problem whatever it may be so we want to make sure we get good people.”

Most structure fires require between 20 to 25 firefighters on scene so with a slimmer staff, Stieve said the department often has to call on mutual aid for any big calls. It’s not an easy fix, when many surrounding stations have similar concerns.

Lake Delton’s chief said they’re in need of seven more firefighters for their 28-person department. He said they too are constantly recruiting.

Despite the commitment, some Baraboo firefighters like Green said they’re willing to stick it out as long as they can. He said nothing can match, the opportunity to protect his own community.

“The fulfillment I get out of it I’ve never met anywhere in my life,” he said.

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini

Reporter, WKOW

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