At Ephraim’s Village Board meeting on Nov. 10, Fire Chief Justin MacDonald proposed the village end its contract with Gibraltar for use of the town’s Emergency Medical Responder’s (EMR) and engage with Liberty Grove’s Fire Department for an aid agreement. MacDonald said that it is a matter of response time and the Ephraim EMRs respond to all calls in the village anyway, making the $3,000 stipend that the village pays to Gibraltar under the contract unnecessary.
But Gibraltar Fire Chief Caleb Whitney thinks this move simply highlights the jurisdictional mess that all Northern Door fire departments face.
“It’s much more the conversation of the command structure, the municipal agreements and the payment structure. There will be some jurisdictional conversation that we’ll need to have,” said Whitney, referencing places like Peninsula State Park, where jurisdiction is shared between Ephraim and Gibraltar. “Some of Peninsula Park is shared by both Ephraim and Gibraltar so by bringing in another agency (Sister Bay/Liberty Grove) we’ll have to have a conversation about methodology and command structure. So those are the kinds of issues that changing your affiliation would have an impact on.”
MacDonald said that the decision was not about money, as a contract with Sister Bay/Liberty Grove will cost the same. Rather, MacDonald said the decision is based on numbers.
“It wasn’t about the money, it was about the response coverage,” said MacDonald at the board meeting. “We have two EMRs in the village currently. Gibraltar has, right now, they are down to basically one person…on the very south end of the township of Gibraltar.”
Meanwhile, first responders that live in Sister Bay are geographically closer to many parts of Ephraim and can more easily respond to calls within the village. MacDonald and former Fire Chief Niles Weborg said this was a cyclical thing, as Ephraim used to be a part of the Sister Bay/Liberty Grove department decades ago.
“When we dropped out from the Northern Door responders and went to Gibraltar it was because Northern Door didn’t have many down here in the southern end of Liberty Grove and Sister Bay and that’s why we opted to go with Gibraltar,” said Weborg. “Now, since then, Sister Bay/Liberty Grove has more numbers next door to us than they had before.”
While everyone admits that the main goal of all first responders is to provide the most effective aid as quickly as possible, things get complicated with multiple agencies under different agreements.
Whitney explained that in the 1990s, the number of first responders in mid-Door – including Ephraim, Gibraltar and Baileys Harbor – was dangerously low. These three municipalities entered into an automatic aid agreement. This means that each municipality receives and responds to each other’s calls.
Meanwhile, all Northern Door fire departments operate under mutual aid agreements, meaning they will show up to each other’s calls if requested.
With Ephraim looking to contract with Sister Bay/Liberty Grove, this clouds these two department’s involvement in the mid-Door agreement. This cloudiness is part of what gives credence behind the formation of a Fire District.
A Fire District would bring all the departments under one umbrella to function as a single entity. While still relying on volunteerism, Whitney believes it is the only way to relieve the department’s fears of falling numbers and rising emergencies.
“There would be no jurisdiction, there would be no need to judge one budget versus another. There would not be as many potentially different points of view, good bad or otherwise, of methodology. Instead what you would have is a streamlined command structure and then that would be taken care of by a cohesive, consolidated group of officers. From there the response would be based upon units necessary instead of based upon geography,” said Whitney.
A study commissioned by the Northern Door municipalities agreed with Whitney. The study determined more pros than cons in developing a fire district and Sister Bay Liberty Grove Fire Chief Chris Hecht said that the model works well in other counties throughout Wisconsin. But when it came to implementing the consolidation of five or six different municipalities with differing interests, the project fell flat.
“That discussion has been put on the back burner and that really has nothing to do with this Ephraim-Gibraltar issue,” said Hecht. “I think there’s some issues that need to be resolved before we find out if this can go forward or maybe it needs to be looked at under a smaller scale.”
But Hecht admits that a Fire District is the way of the future and, whether it starts with just two municipalities or more, the discussion will continue.
“We’re beginning to reach the point where the burden of response is being disproportionately carried by too few,” said Whitney. “So at some point we’re going to have to, as a community, recognize that and share the cost among the many. The only really fair way to do that would be a district.
“But because of the number of municipalities, because of the structure of municipalities, because the dollar amounts involved, that’s kind of where the effort stopped.” The study showed that some districts would see a cost increase under a Fire District and that was hard to swallow for communities that see some of their money going toward rescues outside of their municipal lines.
At the Ephraim meeting, MacDonald stated the goal was to have Ephraim eventually function as its own department. Hecht is happy to help any municipality plant its feet firmer and hopes Ephraim can function on its own some day, but he removes his department from any discussion between Ephraim and Gibraltar on this issue.
“We didn’t go looking for this (agreement) but this is the route that Ephraim wants to go and we’re happy to do that. If Ephraim wants to go a different way, we’re open to that too,” said Hecht. He also recognizes that these relationships may be a stepping-stone to creating a Fire District, no matter how far in the future that may be.
Whitney hopes it’s soon.
“A fire district would eliminate all of these conversations. There would be simply one jurisdiction, there would be one method, there would be one way to move forward. So the behind-the-scenes administration would be so much more streamlined,” said Whitney.
Gibraltar is already taking a step in mitigating fire administration by giving Andy Crowell, Gibraltar police officer, additional paid hours toward fire administration.
Northern Door is still far from a unified fire district where everyone is happy and radio wires never get crossed, but the concept is still in the minds of firefighters in each municipality.
“Whatever the common ground is, we’ll find it and proceed,” said Whitney. “Because it’s not about the individual officer or the individual agency, it’s about providing the necessary protection and coverage for residents and visitors.”