Where is your emergency?

The Ripon Commonwealth Press (whose owner, Ripon Printers, is one of the Marian University Business & Industry Awards recipients) reports this week about confusion over the location of a car crash on Wisconsin 23 between Ripon and Green Lake Oct. 11:

[Marion] Kuster quickly pulled up to the scene of a violent crash, a 10-50 in police-speak. Two vehicles had collided more or less head-on. The scene was a mess.
From one car, Kuster could hear the wails of an injured woman. At the car in front of her, she saw a young man, a teenager judging by the letter jacket in the back seat, slipping in and out of consciousness.
She did what we’ve all been trained to do.
Kuster punched in 9-1-1 on her cell.
What ensued frustrated her.
But, as she found out later, the situation that followed may have been unavoidable. …
“I said [to the Fond du Lac County dispatcher], ‘I’m between Ripon and Green Lake and I need an ambulance,'” Kuster said. “She said, ‘What county are you in?’ I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘I have to know what county you’re in.”

The story reports on the delay of nearly two minutes in dispatching emergency personnel because the dispatcher Kuster called was unable to pinpoint whether the crash was in Fond du Lac County or Green Lake County. A crash on the east side of the Fond du Lac–Green Lake county line  means either the Town of Ripon Police Department or the Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Department should respond; a crash on the west side of the county line means the Green Lake County Sheriff’s Department should respond.

That almost-two-minute delay was basically dismissed by Fond du Lac County officials. That is the wrong response. For one thing, Ripon Guardian Ambulance, whose service area runs approximately from Green Lake to Rosendale to Brandon, is not a full-time ambulance service. EMTs take several minutes to get to the ambulance garage at City Hall in Ripon. The same applies to the Ripon and Green Lake fire departments, whose firefighters are volunteers.

I can see how something like this might happen. In the year when I was commuting daily from Ripon to New London, there was a car crash on U.S.  45 south of New London. That stretch of U.S. 45 is basically the Outagamie–Waupaca county line. When I called 911, I wondered which county would answer the call. Perhaps because I was driving south, Waupaca County answered. (Ironic in a sense since Waupaca County has the stupid ordinance prohibiting cell phone use while driving.)

An even better example is any crash or incident in the Fox Cities, which comprises parts of three counties, four cities, three villages and six (depending on how you count) towns. Which adds up to three sheriff’s departments, seven police departments and nine fire departments. (But only one ambulance service, which was not set up by government, but by the Fox Cities’ hospitals.) Before moving to Ripon, we lived in a house in the Winnebago County part of Appleton, next to a house in the Town of Menasha. The City of Menasha was at the end of our street. A drive on Wisconsin 441 to U.S. 41 would take me back into the Town of Menasha, then into Outagamie County and the Town of Grand Chute, then to either of my offices in the Outagamie County part of the City of Appleton. If you are unfortunate enough to get into a crash at the intersection of South Oneida Street and Calumet Street in Appleton, you will simultaneously be in three different counties.

The fact that you can understand how this could happen doesn’t mean it should happen. It frankly adds fuel to those who suggest, sometimes in jest and sometimes not, that Ripon should be in Green Lake County instead of Fond du Lac County. And as Kuster pointed out, “It could be life or death for somebody. … I could have been from Minnesota, and I would not have known what county we were in.” In fact, the existing procedure is to send units from both Fond du Lac County and Green Lake County, according to Fond du Lac County’s emergency government director, something Fond du Lac County has been “re-emphasizing” after this crash.

Another issue was brought up by Ripon Police Chief Dave Lukoski — emergency service agencies can’t send units to any call and decide jurisdictional questions later, because “It’s a jurisdictional concern. When we got out to an agency’s [call], we have to have a mutual aid agreement to cover us in case something happens. We lose liability protection [if] we are out of our jurisdiction. … If I get rammed by a semi and I [don’t have insurance coverage], insurance companies will run away from me.”

I’m sure Lukoski’s correct about that. That brings to mind, however, two incidents, one I covered in my weekly newspaper days, the other I personally witnessed. In March 1990, when a Grant County sheriff’s deputy was shot to death, police and sheriff’s departments from all over southwest Wisconsin responded. Technically, every officer who wasn’t employed by Grant County, including the Dane County K-9 dog who captured the killer, was out of his jurisdiction.

That also was the case in the Camp Randall Stampede in November 1993, when 70 Badger fans were caught against a fence and injured celebrating a UW win over Michigan. Every ambulance from Dane County was called, and again, every ambulance except Madison Fire Department ambulances or private ambulances was out of its agency’s jurisdiction. If emergency responses are being delayed or not happening at all because of insurance concerns, something needs to be done about that, whether legislatively or otherwise.

The last point, a point not brought up at all in the story, is that this is great evidence that Wisconsin’s 3,120 units of government are far, far, far, far, far too many. The Fox Cities has one police department serving the three villages and one fire department serving two of the four cities, but those are just baby steps toward what should have happened years ago — a Fox Cities police department and a Fox Cities fire department (similar to what is being proposed in Green Bay). Here in Ripon, our property tax dollars pay for the Ripon Police Department, but our state income tax dollars, through the dubious miracle of state shared revenue, help pay for the Town of Ripon Police Department, whose contribution to public safety is writing speeding tickets outside the city. (While still, I’ve been told, being a net money-loser for the Town of Ripon.)

We live in a state that ran state budget deficits, when correctly measured by Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, every year in the first decade of the 21st century. Only one other state also ran GAAP deficits every year in the past decade — Illinois, which has 6,994 units of government, the most of any state in the country. Having, in Wisconsin’s case, one unit of government for every 1,823 Wisconsinites (a lower ratio than Illinois, believe it or not) leads to neither responsible government finance nor quality government service.

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