Rural fire departments face challenges

IT WAS, IF NOT ironic, then at least appropriate. The Sherman Town Board earlier this month had a wide-ranging discussion with Batavia Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dennis Schulz. The same night, the CBS-TV reality show “Survivor” had its new season debut, featuring Random Lake native Andrea Boehlke as a contestant. A raucous viewing party was going on in the fire hall at the same time as the board was meeting next door.

In essence, the topic was survival in both rooms.

Like many rural volunteer fire departments, the Batavia department is experiencing a numbers issue. They are having difficulty recruiting and keeping new members, especially volunteers who are available to answer calls during the day, Schulz admitted.

It’s a problem facing many volunteer fire departments as the time demands on members increase, in terms of required training and regular meetings on top of the demands of answering the call in emergencies.

The Batavia department has worked closely for years with the neighboring Beechwood Fire Department to provide coverage to parts of the towns of Sherman and Scott, to the point of answering fire calls in all those areas jointly – again due to a lack of numbers in both departments.

Schulz said the two departments, in light of the issues both face, have been holding talks aimed at an eventual consolidation. The talks have not progressed very far to this point, he told the Sherman Town Board, but both sides are confident an agreement can be reached by the end of the year.

However, the neighboring Scott Town Board has put pressure on the two departments by announcing that they plan to end their contract with Batavia – and their First Responders – as of June 30.

Schulz assured the Sherman board that his department is not disbanding, while conceding that the ultimatum from Scott is putting pressure on the two departments.

Either the two departments will complete their merger talks in the next three months or else boundaries will need to be redrawn to reflect the end of Batavia’s coverage in the town of Scott.

For the sake of the safety and security of residents in both townships, and all areas served by the two departments, a resolution needs to be reached. All involved need to remember that their primary concern and focus should be on the safety and security of their residents, and act accordingly.

It is quite possible that this will not be the last time these issues will need to be addressed in this area. Sheboygan County, and especially its rural areas, have been well served by years by dedicated, passionate volunteer firefighters – their friends and neighbors.

But the demands of the work, the training needed to safely fight fires and provide emergency service in today’s complicated and technical world, are making it more and more of a challenge for volunteers to continue to provide that service.

Long range, it may well be that alternative means of providing necessary fire and emergency protection may need to be explored.

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