Small towns in America have long relied on the services of volunteer fire and rescue departments, whereby citizens offer their time and effort to help the community when necessary. Such an approach works well in tightly knit towns, saving tax money that would have been used to hire full-time emergency response employees.
Unfortunately, this model of volunteer emergency services is increasingly ill suited to the reality of contemporary American life. Designed for towns of family farmers and small business owners who can leave their work at a moment's notice to respond to a call, the traditional arrangement has been eroded as farming and independent business jobs are eliminated, and town residents commute farther and farther to work.
By the middle of the 1980s, the vast majority of the Fire Department volunteers in Bristol, Wisconsin (a town of 4,500 residents south of Milwaukee), worked outside of the town during the day. As the only full-time fire and rescue employee was the Fire Chief, the community had serious difficulty in finding people to answer fire and emergency calls during the day. As a result, the town had to rely on the mutual aid of neighboring towns, and contract out some of their work to a private emergency service, at considerable expense to the town.
In 1987, a member of the town Public Works department joined the Bristol Fire and Rescue Department, opening up the possibility that he could answer calls during his workday. Previously, Public Works employees were not allowed to leave their assignments for a fire or rescue incident, but town officials quickly saw the merit in changing the rules to allow cross-training of these employees.
As of 1999, six of the seven Public Works employees in Bristol were trained as emergency responders. During daytime hours, they carry phones, radios, and beepers to inform them quickly of any emergency call. Initially, EMT and basic firefighter training were considered bonuses in the hiring qualifications, but as of 1995 all new hires were required to have both certifications. Wage incentives helped to encourage participation in the fire department for existing public works employees, with $.75 per hour raises for each of the two qualifications.
While there have been marginal delays of various public works projects, the increased efficiency to the town of using existing employees where they are most needed far outweighs this cost. Some town residents were concerned to periodically see Public Works equipment sitting idle during the day, but these criticisms subsided when they were informed about the cross-training program.
In the past ten years, not a single fire or rescue incident has gone unanswered in Bristol during the day time, and response times for daytime calls are actually lower than for calls taking place outside work hours. All this has been accomplished at a fraction of the cost of contracting with private emergency services or adding full-time fire and rescue personnel.