WATERFORD — A man and woman riding a motorcycle on a rural northwestern Racine County highway collided with another vehicle.
The motorcycle slammed into a roadside pole and the duo was flung from the bike. Neither was wearing a helmet.
Both were bleeding. The woman gagged on her own blood. The man’s eyes turned black.
It was 4:05 p.m. on Aug. 4, 2018.
The Waterford Fire Department had an ambulance two miles closer to the scene than any other fire agency, but it was the third one called to the scene. A first responder from the Tichigan Volunteer Fire Co. got the initial call and immediately called the Mukwonago Fire Department in Waukesha County for aid instead of Waterford.
Even though Waterford would have been able to respond the fastest of any department, it was not called to respond until 11 minutes after the crash. Despite being the third one called, the Waterford ambulance still arrived first.
That call, at the intersection of Highway 83 and Loland Drive in the Town of Waterford, is just one example of when a first responder has gone out of their way to call a more distant ambulance in the greater Waterford area. It’s a symptom of the dysfunction among the Village of Waterford Fire Department and neighboring Tichigan and Rochester fire companies that has been a growing public safety concern for more than 20 years.
Interdepartmental squabbles and clashing egos are getting in the way of public safety, a Journal Times investigation found. Call logs and after-call reports demonstrate how deep the divide has become: First responders from the Tichigan and Rochester companies have repeatedly called more distant fire agencies for backup despite a Waterford ambulance being mere minutes away.
The dysfunction is no secret, and it can get in the way of patients getting timely, vital care at a hospital. Town and village officials speak freely about the problems at board meetings, and residents and officials have chronicled them on social media.
Despite documentation dating back to at least 1997, the issues have never been resolved.
“This should not be happening,” Town of Waterford Supervisor Dale Gauerke said. “Every minute counts. So calling a more distant department out of spite, to me, is just unconscionable. This can’t be allowed to happen.”
Geographically close, philosophically distant
The three Waterford-area fire agencies are geographically close to each other. The Waterford Fire Department is just over a mile up Highway W from the Rochester Volunteer Fire Co. The Tichigan Volunteer Fire Co. is only about five miles north of Downtown Waterford in the Tichigan area of the Town of Waterford.
Despite the proximity, the agencies’ philosophies are miles apart. And those differences are deeply ingrained.
“There’s no way right now that these departments are working together,” Waterford Town Chairman Tom Hincz said. “I’d like to see the situation where they are, but I can’t wave a magic wand.”
The Tichigan and Rochester fire companies are private entities that contract with the Town of Waterford and Village of Rochester, respectively, and they act independently of the governments but keep a close relationship with their municipal board that provide their funding. The companies are only staffed during weekdays, but have first responders available to go directly to medical emergencies from their homes and businesses.
The Village of Waterford Fire Department is a municipal entity that offers 24/7 staffed paramedic service; paramedic is the highest attainable EMS certification, a step higher than what either Tichigan or Rochester offer. Waterford fire has both paid and volunteer staff. It answers directly to the village government.
“You’ve got to work with these departments in one way or another,” Tichigan Fire Chief Dave Wagner said. “And yeah, you should eventually learn to work together for the betterment of the community.”
Rochester Fire Chief Jack Biermann claims the issues started when Waterford Fire Chief Rick Mueller was hired five years ago, but a 1997 letter written by a former Rochester chief details issues going back to at least then.
Mueller, a retired battalion chief from the West Allis Fire Department, has pushed for all three departments to follow national and state standards for EMS and firefighting calls, something the Rochester and Tichigan companies have sometimes been reluctant to do.
When Mueller was initially hired, he said, all three entities had serious standards violations that could affect the safety of all involved. He worked to whip his own department into shape, but said Tichigan and Rochester “haven’t been as willing or open-minded to explore those ways of delivering service.”
But the state and national standards Mueller has called for the fire departments to follow “are guidelines,” Biermann said, “not laws.”
In 2015, Biermann — then an assistant chief of the Rochester company — said the fire company’s traditional methodology “is the way we have always done it. And it works for us.” His tone has not changed since becoming chief. Mueller’s strict adherence to the standards, Biermann said, “just doesn’t seem like it’s the right fit for everybody else.”
Tradition vs. progression
Waterford Village Administrator Zeke Jackson, who was hired in October 2017, has been highly critical of the unwillingness to adapt to modern standards and refusal to shift internal cultures in the interest of public safety.
“I think one of the bigger questions that should be asked is: What is the goal in providing emergency medical services? And the answer should be ‘saving lives,’ ” Jackson said. “It shouldn’t be getting a bunch of guys together to drink beers. It shouldn’t be creating a culture where we have a place to hang out.”
Firefighting has changed drastically in the past few decades. Newer construction practices and furniture materials burn faster than ever, and those materials can give off toxic fumes.
A study by the Underwriters Laboratory Firefighter Safety Research Institute found that older home furnishings could take nearly a half-hour for a fire to reach flashover, or a rapid expansion and combustion. Modern furnishing and construction take just minutes.
“We can’t fight fires the same way and expect the same results, which is saving property and lives,” said Mueller, who is an adjunct fire technology instructor at Gateway Technical College. “Our environment has changed. We have to change with it, or we lose.”
It was the afternoon of Oct. 23, 2019. A call had just come in about a two-vehicle crash near the Tichigan Wildlife Area in the Town of Waterford.
Assistant Waterford Fire Chief Tom Nehring was returning to the Waterford station in an ambulance after responding to an EMS call. He was less than 3 minutes from the crash scene.
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Nehring radioed Tichigan’s incident commander to say he was nearby and available to respond, according to dispatch tapes reviewed by The Journal Times. The incident commander told Nehring to stand by.
Nehring pulled over and waited. He watched as a Tichigan first responder drove past him and toward the scene of the crash, he told The Journal Times.
Twenty-four minutes after the call came in, Tichigan’s incident commander finally dispatched Nehring to the scene, according to the dispatch tapes. Nehring arrived about 2 minutes later, the call log shows. Nehring beat Tichigan’s ambulance to the scene, which didn’t arrive for 33 minutes, according to the tapes.
“We’d love to say that it’s the only example of situations like this, but it happens more frequently than you would think,” said Assistant Waterford EMS Chief Nicholas Birmingham.
Two days later, Wagner alleged Nehring “self-dispatch(ed)” to the call, according to an email obtained through an open records request, even though the dispatch tapes show Nehring was called by Tichigan’s incident commander.
In reference to the Aug. 4, 2018, motorcycle-versus-automobile accident in which Waterford was called last but still arrived first, Wagner took no issue with the way his staff handled the call.
“I really don’t expect an incident commander to try to — with a lot going on, they have a lot to think about — to try to Google, or try to bring up who’s exactly farthest away,” Wagner said in an interview, insisting the distance was “very minimal.” (Waterford was about two miles closer to the crash than either the Tichigan or Mukwonago departments.)
At an Oct. 30 meeting between Wagner and Mueller, both fire chiefs agreed to make sure their agencies would call one another, no matter what, according to Teri Jendusa-Nicolai, a Waterford town supervisor who attended the meeting.
Wagner denied that his department members have ever refused to call Waterford because of the departments’ disagreements.
“That has nothing to do with it,” he said.
‘The potential to cause harm’
Tichigan’s first responders are not the only ones who have ignored opportunities to call Waterford.
On Jan. 28, 2017, a 3-year-old girl was having a seizure in the Rochester Volunteer Fire Co.’s response area, according to a report filed by a Waterford Fire lieutenant. Rochester was occupied with another call, and the lieutenant informed Rochester that Waterford had an ambulance available.
Rochester’s incident commander responded by calling an ambulance from the Burlington Squad — a service more than five miles farther from the scene than Waterford, according to the report.
“I believe that the decision to call for Burlington instead of us was politically motivated, and had the potential to cause harm (to) a three year old girl,” the Waterford lieutenant wrote.
Despite that, Biermann did not indicate that he took issue with decisions to call more distant departments.
“There is no contract in place that says one department has to call another one,” Biermann said in an interview. “It’s the sole discretion of whoever is in charge at that time.”
He added: “The closest person might not always be the best one.” When asked to explain his reasoning, Biermann did not directly respond. Instead, he pointed to the Waterford Fire Department’s habit of calling the distant Vernon Fire Department in Waukesha County for assistance.
Vernon and Waterford’s fire departments have an amicable relationship. The two departments have worked together closely for several years for training purposes, and Vernon helped Waterford when the latter was upgrading to paramedic-level service.
Mueller said his department calls Vernon to backfill the fire station when both of Waterford’s ambulances are out on a call — something he said happens about a dozen times a year, but helps ensure that area residents have 24/7 access to a paramedic ambulance. It is even rarer for Vernon’s ambulance to actually have to respond from Waterford’s station, he said.
There has never been a case in which a Waterford Fire Department first responder called Vernon for immediate aid when a staffed Rochester or Tichigan ambulance was standing by, Mueller said. Biermann declined to provide documentation of any specific calls in which he felt that happened, and Tichigan Assistant Chief Bill Miller said he was not able to identify any such calls.
Reports from government officials and one Waterford resident present at the Oct. 30 meeting between Wagner and Mueller indicated that discussions were moving in a positive direction.
However, Mueller said he found the meeting largely ineffective in resolving any differences between the departments.
“This whole discussion … is not about how two fire chiefs can’t get along,” Mueller said. “This is about our elected officials — our village governments and town governments — not getting along. And now they’re projecting that down to us as fire chiefs.”
But there is unquestionable friction between the departments.
Mueller laid out another issue from the Oct. 30 meeting that has never been publicized: He feels Bill Miller, the assistant Tichigan fire chief, has a vendetta against the Waterford Fire Department.
Mueller has curated a 45-page-long file, obtained by The Journal Times through an open records request, containing documentation of hostile actions Miller has allegedly taken against Waterford fire personnel. The file claims Miller has sent harassing texts to a WFD paramedic during a call, stuck his middle finger in the air toward the WFD command vehicle and called former WFD personnel to urge them to file anonymous complaints with the state against Mueller.
Because of Miller’s alleged actions, Mueller said his department will no longer participate in any training or extracurricular activities with the Tichigan Volunteer Fire Co. as long as Miller, a former Waterford volunteer and full-time South Shore firefighter, is with the company.
“Right now, I can’t tell you what another fire department should do,” Miller said. “I can tell you what this fire department will do and what this fire department will not do. I will not put my people in jeopardy. I will not put my people at an unreasonable risk. I have to protect my people from the hazards of my profession. And unfortunately, I have to protect my people from other fire department members.”
The Journal Times sent a copy of the 45-page document to Wagner and Miller for review.
Wagner declined to comment. Miller said he filed a complaint with the Racine County Sheriff’s Office “due to the ongoing harassment and slander of myself” and because the file had been released to the paper without his knowledge. He declined to comment further, other than to say “I will be contacting an attorney for a civil suit.”
“Every minute counts. So calling a more distant department out of spite, to me, is just unconscionable. This can’t be allowed to happen.” Dale Gauerke, Waterford Town Board member
"Every minute counts. So calling a more distant department out of spite, to me, is just unconscionable. This can’t be allowed to happen.”
Dale Gauerke, Waterford Town Board member