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Rhinelander Fire Department urges for increase in funding to better support community

Katie Thoresen

A common phrase has been frequently repeated by local fire and EMS departments of late: “We’re doing the best we can with what we have.”

The biggest struggles are a lack of funding and not enough people interested in the EMS career field.

Governor Tony Evers toured the Rhinelander Fire Department this week to see firsthand what they’re dealing with.

Rhinelander Fire Chief Brian Tonnancour refers to the building that houses the firetrucks, ambulances, and workers as a “Frankenstein” as it’s been added to and pieced together over the years.

“It’s very good for us as shelter, but for it to be a functioning fire department it doesn’t fit our needs,” he said.

Tonnancour showed Evers the bunk room that lacks good temperature control.

“As we’ve built and frankenstiened the station, we’ve put in a new HVAC system. We have six different HVAC systems in this station,” said Tonnancour.

“In the summer it’s freezing and in the winter it’s too hot, like 86 degrees hot,” chimed in one of the firefighters.

Tonnancour showed Evers the cracks in the walls and floors in the engine bays that haven’t held up under the weight of the trucks.

"The floor is giving way and caving, he said. “We had to move our engines off of here because of the weight. This floor is eventually going to give way.”

Despite the myriad of issues with the building, Tonnancour’s top priority is staffing.

If he could, Tonnancour would hire six more people today to help cover the high volume of EMS calls they get every day.

“Today alone two ambulances out, back-to-back. We had four calls at the same time, so we had four people out at the station, one person back and we’re still trying to cover for a fire call within the city. We only have one person for a truck to take to a fire call. You do the math, that’s not going to work,” he said.

To hire those needed workers, Tonnancour needs more money.

“It’s a general fund problem. It’s just the expenditure restraint, the levy-limits. That would cause us to go to referendum. That’s not really the answer for Rhinelander. We’re a low income city. We don’t want to ask our tax payers for more all the time to cover these services when we’ve got to look at other avenues to get that funding,” said Tonnancour.

Evers agrees and hopes that the next state budget will increase funding to fire departments across the state.

“I think people welcome the fire and police careers. I think we just have to pay them more respect and pay them more,” said Evers.

Tonnancour believes more money for salaries and benefits would also help the recruitment and retention side of the issue.

He knows that all the problems won’t be solved overnight, but that he’s hoping that he’s heard by people that can bring about that change and take the first steps towards real solutions.

“This was a great opportunity for us to put it out there and say, ‘Hey we’re struggling too.’ Rhinelander is not as big as some of these other cities, but we run a lot. We have a high call volume. We ask a lot of our people in public safety, and we have to be able to take care of our people on the back end of it too,” said Tonnancour.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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