Each year the Milwaukee Fire Department answers more 911 calls with fewer people, and it was only compounded because of the pandemic.
Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski says to help address some long-standing shortages, the department will utilize $36.7 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding.
"It is a thing that would keep a fire chief up at night, is the thought of, well what if?" Lipski said. "The what-if is I don't have the appropriate folks in the appropriate spots and somebody is dying right now."
Lipski said the city budget gives his department 865 full-time employees. Right now he's at 805.
According to the chief, much of those federal dollars will go towards funding nine engine companies on the north and near south sides, which the chief said were hit hardest by the pandemic.
"I can't even begin to illustrate, nor do I even want to imagine the impact of not being able to fund nine companies this year," Lipski said.
Funds will address shortages in EMS as well. The city relies on private ambulance companies to help cover the growing 911 call load. Chris Anderson of Bell Ambulance said his company has dealt with its own staffing shortages even before the pandemic, adding their call load ballooned after another private company exited the 911 agreement with the city.
"It was dire," Anderson said. "We weren't sure what was going to happen."
Between September 2020 and August 2021, the private ambulance companies turned back more than 8,500 911 calls, meaning they were unable to handle the call. That was with a third company helping.
After that company left the agreement, the city approved a subsidy for the two remaining companies for each 911 call they took so they could hire more EMTs and add ambulances to answer the growing number of calls, in part using the ARPA funds.
With additional resources, Anderson said his company's response times are shrinking, and turnbacks are as close to zero as they've ever been.
"About a month ago for the first time, we actually we are pretty proud of it, we were able to report to the fire department that there were zero turnback calls in the system for that week," Anderson said.
Lipski added additional ARPA funding will go toward training, about $6.7 million, according to ARPA budget documents.
New recruits are needed to fix the ambulance issue long-term. Recruits like Alexandria Taper, a 22-year-old Rufus King graduate who passed the EMT civilian course in January.
"I didn't think I would come to this point of actually passing to get my EMT," Taper said.
Her goal is to become a nurse, starting with this EMT certification. But she says she's actually using that EMT to become a physician's substitute at a plasma center, instead of becoming an EMT.
"They pay more, honestly, than they pay EMTs," she said.
Anderson said recruitment and the competition in the job market are top of mind. He said he's been able to pay his EMTs $3 more an hour with the additional resources.
And if it's the model for long-term sustainability, it may take more than the one-time influx of federal dollars.
"That's a very real thing," Lipski said. "It feels good to not have to cut any companies this year. I'm hopeful next year we can get by without cutting any more companies. The year beyond that and beyond that because we're dealing with some real structural deficits for a number of reasons right now."