Brooklyn EMS celebrating 25 years of public service

Sandy Mortensen, left, and Gary Ziegler, right, signing paperwork to start the service in 1996. Ziegler was the first Brooklyn EMS director.
Rhonda Hennessey steps into Brooklyn’s first ambulance in 1997.
From left, Garth Langhammer, former EMS Director and Phil Mortensen, former Fire Chief, break ground for the new station in April 2006.
The new Fire and EMS station was dedicated in April 2007.
The Observer wrote about the formation of Brooklyn’s EMS in a June 1996 issue.

Before the Brooklyn Emergency Medical Service District began service on July 1, 1996, it had several obstacles and kinks to work out.

At the time, it was the first EMS start-up in Dane County in 15 years.

“So you can imagine some of the hurdles we’ve experienced,” then Brooklyn EMS secretary Petie MacLeod told the Observer at the time.

After training multiple nights a week for several months through staged emergency situations to fine tune their skills, including ride-alongs with the EMS crews from Oregon, Belleville, Evansville and Albany, the first Brooklyn EMTs were ready to volunteer.

In its 25 years, Brooklyn EMS has employed the services of approximately 225 volunteer members, according to history compiled by Misty Wicik, the wife of current Brooklyn EMS director Justin Wicik.

Wicik, the 10th EMS director, oversees a crew of 31 volunteer members, a number he said that’s been hard to maintain in recent years. While training requirements and emergency needs of the district have increased, stipends remain small and volunteers are now living farther away.

Prior to the formation of Brooklyn EMS, services were provided by surrounding communities including Oregon, Evansville, Belleville, Stoughton and Albany, former director Evelyn Hall told the Observer.

While still a fairly small service with just one ambulance, Brooklyn EMS volunteers took around 242 calls last year, Wicik said, and the team is on pace to exceed that this year. In its first full year of service, 1997, it took 119 calls.

With changes over the years of how many hours people could commit, around 2012, Brooklyn EMS began to staff several daytime employees. It now has five part-time employees who work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.

“Daytime coverage is hard, a lot of people leave to go to Madison for work,” Wicik said. “Taking on the part-timers for daytime service was a big deal.”

Family connections

Wicik is one of the longest-serving members of the EMS, having joined in 2000. He has lived in Brooklyn for pretty much his whole life and grew up a few blocks from the station, he told the Observer.

It was seeing firefighters around town and the trucks passing by his house as a kid that got him interested in volunteer service.

He began taking classes at night when he was a high school senior, and he would leave school during the day if a severe enough call came in.

People who volunteer for the service get to know everybody on the crew, and it becomes like a family, Wicik said.

But more than a family-like bond with other volunteers, Wicik’s actual family is also dedicating time. His daughter joined the service two years ago, and his wife recently began taking classes to become a firefighter.

Another volunteer with family connections Cory Lloyd, who has been a member of the Brooklyn EMS for around a decade. She grew up wanting to serve the community because her father was one of the founders of Brooklyn EMS and a member for several years and her mom worked in the healthcare field, Lloyd told the Observer.

She began in 1999 and was a member for about five years before she took a break to raise her children. She’s been back for about four years, she said.

Finding volunteers

One of the biggest changes Wicik has seen in his two decades as an EMT is a delocalization of volunteers.

When he got his start, most lived in the community and some could volunteer upwards of 2,000 to 3,000 hours per year. Now close to half of the EMTs don’t live in the village, but rather are in surrounding communities including Waunakee, Waukesha and Sun Prairie. Those who live farther away can’t pick up as many shifts.

While Brooklyn EMS would like volunteers to provide 48 hours a month and attend a monthly training, it will take what it can get, Lloyd said.

“If you’re worried about the training or time commitment, we take all the help we can get. We aren’t hunting you down if you can’t do 48 hours,” Lloyd said. “Whatever you’re willing to help with, it’s very rewarding to help people and a great way to serve and do your part for the community.”

But getting volunteers can be a challenge, Lloyd said, with many not being able to commit to certain times such as weekends or during the weekdays, because of having jobs or family and other obligations.

And part of that challenge is the volunteer aspect – everyone except for a few part-time day staff are virtually unpaid other than a small stipend of $2 per hour, Lloyd said.

“Although they receive some compensation, it is a tiny fraction of the value of their work,” the fire department’s website states.

While Hall was not a charter member, she’s been involved for around 18 years, and was the director for five years.

Hall joined after having just retired from her career and she happened to pass a sign that said “EMTs needed during the day.”

And while Hall said what drives people to volunteer varies person to person, she joined because she wanted to help people.

The only stipulation, she was told, is that you have to be 18 years old.

“I laughed, that was not my concern,” she said.

Changing commitments

Being an EMS volunteer is a role that requires dedication, Hall said.

“People who volunteer are willing to get up in the middle of the night, be out in any kind of weather,” she said. “Your heart has to be in it or you’re just not going to do it.”

As volunteers have to be able to get to the fire station within five minutes of a call, the station has rooms for people who live further away to stay in all day or sleep overnight.

Wicik said for some volunteers, other obligations such as work and family take priority over the EMS.

And training can be demanding of people’s time. When Wicik began, the semester-long technical college program was 140 hours, but now it’s 196 hours, he said.

Community recruitment

Community events are an important part of recruiting future volunteers, Wicik said.

In 2007, the EMS Service and fire department moved into a newly constructed, 17,000-square-foot building, which Wicik called a “huge deal” as the old station was crammed. The classroom size doubled and there was more space for community events, like the 25th anniversary celebration held on Saturday, Aug. 14.

“To me it’s about the people, seeing the kids down here, playing games, going through trucks, wearing a plastic helmet, pushing the button on the power cot – kids light up and those are tokens that hopefully down the road get them excited to volunteer,” he said. “That stuff is cool and rewarding.”

But for the lifelong Brooklyn resident, one of the greatest rewards is caring for the people he grew up with, or transporting them in the back of the ambulance.

“They’re not just a patient at that point, they are a neighbor,” he said. “You give them the best care you can and give them your best self.”

Neal Patten can be contacted at [email protected]