SUN PRAIRIE

Sparks fly over planned changes in Sun Prairie Fire Department

2013-07-08T11:00:00Z 2013-07-08T11:23:44Z Sparks fly over planned changes in Sun Prairie Fire DepartmentDENNIS PUNZEL | Wisconsin State Journal | dpunzel@madison.com | 608-252-6179 madison.com

The Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department, which has been putting out fires since 1891, is about to be extinguished.

The Sun Prairie City Council voted last week to move forward with the creation of a combined fire and EMS department that would be operated by the city. The plan calls for the volunteer fire department to disband on Jan. 1, 2014.

Mayor John Murray said it’s simply a case of public safety trumping tradition.

“This is no disrespect to the Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department,” Murray said. “They are a lot of great men and women that have done a lot of good things for this community and I’m hugely respectful of that.

“But showing respect for their efforts and the history of that, that’s fine. But that’s not your reason to not move forward on something that enhances public safety the way this does.”

Murray said the issue comes down to response time. He said the SPVFD has an average response time in the range of seven minutes, compared to an average response time of two to three minutes for the city-run Emergency Medical Service.

“I think the citizens of Sun Prairie deserve to have a fire truck with trained men and women at their door in less than seven minutes,” Murray said.

“Our EMS is a full-fledged professional paramedic level service and they have people at the station 24/7, and when a call comes in they have people at the scene usually within two minutes.”

Fire chief Tory Strauss, however, said the issue is about more than response times.

“What the city wants is control,” said Strauss, an SPVFD member for 12 years and chief for 1½ years. “That’s the No. 1 thing and whatever it costs them to do it, they will spend it.

“We’ve offered to make the changes they want in order to give them the same service that their own department would give. They do not want to negotiate with us. There has been no negotiating with us.”

Strauss said he asked the city last year for funding to put beds in the city’s two fire stations to allow for full-time coverage, but was denied.

“They’re saying we won’t do what they want,” Strauss said. “But when we’ve asked, they won’t give us the funding for it, so we can’t.”

Last May the SPVFD added four full-time firefighters to staff the stations during business hours Monday through Friday. Strauss said those four, along with an administrative assistant, will lose their jobs.

“I’m going to lose my job, too,” Strauss said. “I put in well over 40 hours a week as fire chief and I make very little to nothing. So, yeah, it’s tough.”

Murray has a different take on things. He said the SPVFD has resisted proposals for upgrading service.

“If the Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department had been coming in year after year saying we can go 24/7, we can provide a higher level of service, I guess I would be a little more open to that discussion,” Murray said. “But they haven’t. I had to put the money in my budget two years ago to get the four people over there, over the objection of the fire chief. That’s not how it should be, in my opinion.”

The city is applying for a federal grant to help with the transition costs and plans to spend $46,000 on a consultant to help work through issues.

Murray said a full-time fire department would add an estimated $450,000 to the city’s $25 million annual budget. That will require an average increase of about $40 a year in property taxes for city homeowners.

Strauss said those numbers are understated and estimates the costs will be more like $1.5 million per year.

Strauss also said he was disappointed that Fire Fighters Local 311 supported the change.

“The union is supporting a plan that is firing firefighters,” he said. “I don’t understand that. They just want to get their own people in.”

Despite the hard feelings the proposed change has engendered, Murray said the city is open to hiring volunteers to the new fire crews.

“There are a lot of great, trained men and women over there,” Murray said. “And quite frankly, a lot of them have quietly said they would be interested in coming over and working for the city because of the training and the professionalism and the job security.

“We think there are a lot of opportunities for the men and women (with SPVFD) to come over and fill those spots. We’re not reinventing the wheel here. This is the model that 162 communities across Wisconsin have adopted successfully.”

Strauss said he would be interested in working with the full-time fire department, but is skeptical that he’ll get the opportunity.

“I’ll probably have to go work for the city,” he said of his future plans. “If they’ll hire me, which after going through this, I highly doubt. We’ve been trying to get some guarantees out of them … are you going to hire us? And they won’t give us an answer. The answer always is, ‘Well, you can apply.’ When they won’t commit to anything, that gives us the feeling that we’re all going to be gone.”

In the meantime, Strauss insists things will be business as usual with SPVFD.

“We’ve committed that we’re going to give the best service we can until our contract is up at the end of the year,” he said. “We’re not going to walk out or anything like that.”

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(8) Comments

  1. Copmomof4
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    Copmomof4 - July 09, 2013 12:00 am
    It's 3.5, which is excellent! Madison's is only 3.0 folks. So expect your taxes and insurance to go up. Way up! How can you possibly start up a full time fire department the size of Sun Prairie on a $450,000 grant when you only own half the trucks and half the equipment? And people, if you don't think these firefighters won't walk, think again. The city has done nothing but dumped on them. They have not met once with the firefighters to discuss how this whole switch will take place. Do you really think all of them and the townships are lying about that? And I attended one of the meetings and even some of the alder persons admitted they haven't sat down and talked with them like the mayor wants all of you to think. And by the way, your paramedics are not trained as firefighters and I find it hard to believe that they will be trained enough in 6 months to take over. And don't forget when they are out on a call, there will only be 1 ambulance available for the rest of the city...........
  2. retired
    Report Abuse
    retired - July 08, 2013 3:41 pm
    S/P taxpayers, whats your fire insurance rating right now under a volunteer fire dept ?? I will bet many don't have a clue. I would advise u to find out. Come Jan. and all those volunteers walk out, am I glad I don't live there. Another question, is the fire dept and ems in the same building now ?? If not, how come ??? Get ready to pay more taxes, a lot more.
    Village taking over, elected officials, say in office for what 2yrs. then either quit or voted out. U want this to run your fire/ems, u have to nuts.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  3. Report Abuse
    - July 08, 2013 12:59 pm
    They have Hard data and keep records of response times.
    The data is very telling. Response times for the volunteers is 6-7 minutes and for on-site depts it is around 3 minutes. All you need to do is get to a fire at the 3 minute mark and watch how much it spreads in the next 180 - 240 seconds to realize how important this time is. If your child were in an upstairs bedroom the difference in 3-4 minutes is HUGE. There is simply no way people can leave their homes or work and drive to the firestation, get their gear, and then drive the truck to the fire as quickly as people who are already AT the station standing ready. No amount of dedication, training, hard work, concern, or SAVED MONEY by the volunteers can make that up or replace it. The volunteers should be praised and thanked for all their service and hard work. It's amazing they could support and serve a communitee as large as Sun Prairie as long as they have. The city leaders have a responsibility to provide safety to the citizens. Yes, costs are a concern, but how can you compare $40/person in taxes to a life?
  4. sevendaze
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    sevendaze - July 08, 2013 9:45 am
    Those volunteers are every bit as professional as career firefighters.
  5. Blue Centurion
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    Blue Centurion - July 08, 2013 7:54 am
    There is NO WAY a city the size of Sun Prairie should continue to work with a Volunteer Fire Dept. The city has grown substantially over the past 20 years and needs a full time professional department.
  6. Stonehawk
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    Stonehawk - July 08, 2013 6:27 am
    And just why does someone have to bring Walker into every possible story? It will be more expensive in the long term. How expensive is anyone's guess, but I wager it will end up costing more than $40 per household.

    The volunteer department there has done a great job over the years, despite the City of Sun Prairie. I agree with the Chief, this is a bit of a power play, and has very little to do with response times.

    As I understand it, the SPVFD has a non-compete clause for their members for at least a year, if not two years. Does the mayor and council simply expect to see 40 or 50 NEW volunteers just pop out of the woodwork to support this?

    It is just sad and unwarranted, yet will probably happen. Residents of SP, be prepared, because you can't put the genie back in the bottle once you let it out. When it fails, you will be paying much, much more to protect the City than you once did. For no better coverage.
  7. Josam
    Report Abuse
    Josam - July 08, 2013 6:14 am
    Let the tax payers of SP keep their $40 per year and hire their own private fire fighters, that's what Walker wants.
  8. deernut00
    Report Abuse
    deernut00 - July 08, 2013 1:43 am
    It is going to be VERY expensive, to have professional firefighters on board 24/7. Seems a core of hired firefighters and a cadre of trained volunteers to assist would be the best combination of quick response time and keeping the cost down. But then there are the Unions that will balk, and the trend like Madison where both EMS and firetrucks respond to everything. Utopia isn't possible, in spite of the promises from the big Gov't (or the Gov't that wants to be bigger) that you as a taxpayer will be better off. And I'll say nothing about the firefighters who risk their lives for animals, at taxpayer expense.

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