Firefighter, police and EMT: Palmyra volunteers triple up on public safety duties

Posted at 10:34 PM, Jan 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-11 19:57:42-05

In Palmyra, Wisconsin, a town of about 1,800 people, a firefighter is a police officer is an EMT. They're hiring people to be public safety officers and do every job.

If you're sick or hurt and you call 9-1-1, you want someone there quickly. Across the country, budget cuts are making it more difficult to staff departments and keep up with demand.

Palmyra doesn't have many emergencies, but when they do, the expectation is the same.

"When you're in that situation, you want them there, you know, yesterday," said Heidi Deuster.

Public Safety Director James Small does all three jobs himself. He said the Public Safety Model makes sure someone is there quickly.

"We can put somebody on scene faster," he said.

Somebody like Aeriond Liu.

"I never thought going to school to be a police officer that I'd become a firefighter," he said.

The department has relied heavily on volunteers, but this change allows them to bring on more paid staff members like Liu. That's why they're paying for him to get EMT training, too.

"Anywhere that has a volunteer program is hurting," Liu said.  

In 2015, the National Fire Protection Association estimated 70 percent of firefighters were volunteers. Across the nation, in places like Palmyra that meant sometimes nobody is there to pull out a rig when an emergency happens.

"We're able to keep our ambulance in service, we're able to get our fire engine on scene quickly and have enough staff to do that," Small said. 

Doing that, of course comes with a cost.The 2018 budget for the department is about $630,000. That's up from about $587,000 in 2017. Part of that includes training for staff and new full-time positions.

The village president, David Turner, said even as this model raises costs a bit, it meets a demand from people living in Palmyra.

"The staffing had been understaffed. What were we going to do it and how could we fix that," Turner said. 

This new style isn't just about having the most hands available. Small considers it a more holistic way of looking at public safety.

"People who are trained in EMS are trained to think about outcomes. They're trained to think about long-term strategies moreso than 'Hey, I took the report, it's done and now we're on to the next thing'," Small said.

Small said that mindset has reduced crime in Palmyra.

His reports show criminal offenses are down 32 percent from 2013 to 2017. And thefts are down 59 percent in the same amount of time.

Small feels that's because officers treat crime as a symptom of an issue and work with people in Palmyra to fix the issues driving them to commit a crime.

There are still limits to the public safety model.

"You just hope that they're not spread too thin," Deuster said.

Small said there could be delays in response time if two major incidents happened at once.

However, he said they work in conjunction with other area agencies if they need assistance. He believes Ashwaubenon is the only other location using a model like this in Wisconsin.

He said other small communities around the country are starting to look at public safety departments as an option as budgets shrink. But, he said this likely doesn't work in bigger communities with higher call volume. Palmyra gets about 200 fire calls each year and about 1,500 police calls a year.