Critical shortage of volunteer firefighters leaves Northeast Wisconsin communities in danger


Volunteer first responders are calling for help of their own, especially in the town of Two Rivers.


The future is an empty building, an empty building that used to be a fire department and there's nothing left,” said Assistant Fire Chief Steve Kleckner.


Only 20 firefighters protect the town of 11,000 and each is a volunteer, trusted to drop everything when seconds feel like hours. 

"If we vanish, and we're not here tomorrow, and they've got to come from a neighboring department, ten miles away, that eight minutes might be 15 or 20,” Assistant Chief Kleckner said.


The department is stretched thin, down nearly a dozen members.


Not as many people signing up, means fewer firefighters to go on calls and recruiting more members is almost as hard as fighting the flames themselves.


"We need more people that are willing to do that. We just need them,” Kleckner said.


The National Volunteer Fire Council says close to 100,000 fewer people volunteer for the fire service nationwide now than in 1983, when the records started.


"Once they start finding out the time commitment, they start to lose some interest,” said Chief Roger Benschawel with the Town of Sheboygan Fire Department.

It’s down to 34 firefighters and urgency is setting in as more people decide the service isn't for them.


"On a scale from one to ten, I would say we're probably at about a 7 or 8 right now,” Benschawel said.


Recruits have to train for 60 hours before they can fight a fire, that's in addition to state training and taking classes at the academy. There is some money for driving to a call, in some departments, but for most it isn't worth the risk.


"If they really want to do it, they're going to, you're going to know right away just by the look on their face, or you're going to want to talk to them a little more,” Benschawel said.


For these two towns, hiring full-time firefighters simply isn't an option.


"Do the math on those salaries, and see how you're going to bust the town's budget terriably, are they going to find an extra $400,000 for salaries? It's not there,” said Kleckner.


Both departments hope more people volunteer to answer the call before the doors close one last time.


Both departments say if the situation gets worse, they'll go to the town council and ask for help.


If that doesn't work, they'll have to look into consolidation.

Are you interested in helping your community and becoming a volunteer firefighter? You can find contact information for every department in the state here.

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