First responders are those who run to help when others’ first instinct may be to run away. They are vital to the communities they serve, answering the other end of a 911 call and stepping in during some of the hardest times that people face.
First responders encompass these traits throughout the state of Wisconsin. From the Madison firefighters working 24-hour shifts, to the Milwaukee police officers patrolling neighborhoods and offering a helping hand, to the Waunakee EMTs on call to provide medical aid, to the Geneva Lake Water Safety Patrol ensuring safety on the water — all want to help people and give back to their communities. They contribute every day, sometimes in life-altering ways, without letting fear hold them back.
“Any time you deliver a baby that’s healthy or assist in that, that’s pretty immediately rewarding,” says Dillon Gavinski, an EMT instructor at Madison College and part-time firefighter in Sun Prairie.
It’s an early fall day in Fontana, a southeastern Wisconsin lake community. The air is crisp, and at the Geneva Lakes Boat Show, community members and tourists alike are wandering around, looking at the boats in the harbor. Next to the harbor dock, sitting in the water is a white speedboat with a light blue top and a red banner reading “Water Safety Patrol.”
The patrol is a nonprofit organization funded primarily by donations from community members, and it is unique to Lake Geneva, according to Ted Pankau, the patrol’s director. The organization is dedicated to creating a safe environment on the lake and provides services in three main areas: lifeguards, educational programs and boat patrol.
Growing up, Pankau looked up to the Water Safety Patrol, and he started working for them as a lifeguard while in school.
“I always loved being around the water, and I was a pretty good swimmer when I was younger,” he says. “I wanted to put that skill to use and be able to enjoy the outdoors, enjoy the lake, but also be in a position where I could make a difference and maybe help someone in need someday, in a possible life-saving situation.”
Pankau, 58, has been the director of the organization since 1990, and he regards it as vital to the community.“One of the things that we try to do as an organization is to prevent accidents,” Pankau says. “We don’t just want to respond to them.”
The patrol’s mission is to inform people of the rules of the lake and the ways they can be safer, whether that means those driving or riding in boats, or those who are swimming in the lake.
Lake Geneva is a tourist hotspot in the summer, and on a hot summer day, the lake is filled with locals and vacationers. Boats that fill the lake range from small speedboats to fishing boats to jet skis and even some small yachts.
“Anybody who has spent time at this lake in the summer knows how busy it can be and how dangerous it can be. I just know from being around here so long, if we didn’t have an organization like this, there would be far more accidents and far more fatalities than we do have,” Pankau says.
He explains that, on average, Lake Geneva has only one fatality per year caused by a boating accident. As the director of Water Safety Patrol for the last 28 years, he has been involved in numerous rescue calls.
“Most of them do stick with you, especially if there was a fatality involved,” Pankau says.
“We started in 1920, and every year we look for more ways to better ourselves, improve our methods, improve our techniques, improve our equipment,” he says. “Whatever we can do to make things safer on the lake.”
Sitting in the kitchen of the Madison Fire Department Station 3, the sense of community and family can’t be ignored. Jokes are being made, BLTs and soup are being prepped for lunch, and there is no lack of hospitality.
Growing up, firefighter Kevin McDonald watched fire trucks drive by, knowing that one day he would be inside them. Realizing early that it was the path for him, he graduated from high school and went straight into firefighter training. He was hired at age 20, and now at age 34 has been with Madison’s department for 13 years and at Station 3 (east of the Capitol on Williamson Street) for almost three years.
“It’s definitely a job where we don’t want people to need us, necessarily, but we like being the ones that can help them,” McDonald says.
That’s what firefighters do — they are at the station on their 24-hour shift preparing for calls and responding whenever they are needed.
Station 3 receives between 10 to 20 calls per day. Not all are fire calls; some are ambulance only. When McDonald experiences more intense calls, such as a bad fire or a fatality, he is able to treat it like any other call and just do his job.
“A lot of times, there just isn’t time to really think about it that much,” he says. “We always trained to take a deep breath. You take it all in, and then you do your job. But then afterward … you’re like, ‘Wow, that might have been a little crazier than I thought.’ But you trained so well to get it done.”
The Madison Fire Department makes it a priority to be involved in the community. McDonald has embraced that, explaining that firefighters are members of the community, too, so getting involved and having the community get to know them, and the MFD get to know the community, is important. This year, he co-chaired the annual Police vs. Fire Football Game to raise money for Madison’s East High School, and helped organize the Madison Area Police & Fire Charity Ball that supports Domestic Abuse Intervention Services.
“People normally see us on 911 calls, the ‘worst days of their lives’ type of thing,” he says. “So we try and also let them know that we’re human, too.”
Although many people in law enforcement knew from a young age that they wanted to be a police officer, that is not always the case. Tony Schmitz, a Milwaukee police officer, started in public relations and marketing, but changed his career path in search of a way to make a difference in his community.
“I was familiar with what the police did from my dad, and I did a ride along back in the day in [the city of] Rockford,” Schmitz says. “I just wanted at the end of the day to feel like I made a difference.”
After graduating from the Milwaukee Police and Fire Academy in 2001, Schmitz, 45, was as prepared as he could be to be an officer.
“Everybody is kind of anxious, especially when you’re new, because it isn’t like anything that you’ve done before, but that is where our training really helps,” he says.
Working as a police officer, especially in a larger city like Milwaukee, brings a sense of uncertainty and maybe even fear regarding what a day on the job will entail.
“I guess if you’re not fearful, that’s bad. You should have some amount of fear,” he says, “but you should also have a way to deal with it.”
That fear is different for the family members of police officers.
“I think [my wife] was more afraid of me going out on the streets than I was, of course, and my mom was, too,” Schmitz recalls. “I tried to reassure them, and when it came to things that happened during the night, there were things that I would tell them and some things that I won’t. I didn’t want them to worry more than they already were.”
Schmitz has been with the Milwaukee Police Department for 17 years, filling roles including officer, detective and sergeant, and working in the Internal Affairs Department. He’s now a full-time instructor at the Police Academy.
“I always tell people that the most fun I have ever had on the job was being a police officer on the street,” Schmitz says, adding that he also enjoys teaching the next group of officers. “It is nice to take what I’ve learned and pass it on to other people.”
It has been less than a year since 19-year-old Hayden Latsch joined the emergency medical services as a volunteer in Waunakee, in a suburb outside of Madison. Latsch left the New Glarus EMS, wanting to run more calls. Since joining the Waunakee staff, Latsch himself has run more than 200 calls — the number that the New Glarus EMS receives all year.
Latsch has experienced an array of calls, from minor car accidents to a water rescue, as well as gunshot wounds and a car crash that killed two people. His training has given him the skills necessary to handle those calls.
For Latsch, being an emergency medical technician is a logical step toward his future in emergency medicine. He didn’t always know what he wanted to do, but after talking to a family member who is a paramedic, he knew emergency medicine was for him.
Currently Latsch volunteers around 20 hours a week, while also working at both UW Hospital and Clinics and Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital. There, he works in the emergency rooms, gaining more experience with emergency medicine.
Latsch’s dedication to emergency medicine hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“He is not the typical 18- or 19-year-old person. He is dedicated to trying to help people,” says Todd Wolf, an advanced EMT in Waunakee.
Latsch is looking to gain as much experience as he can before attending paramedic school and eventually becoming an registered nurse.
Since Latsch works for an EMS and in two different emergency rooms, he is able to see both sides of the calls he receives.
“I’m seeing the whole picture of picking somebody up when they’re in an emergency,” he says. “And then we’re getting emergencies at the hospital, and seeing them by the time they’re either getting admitted or getting sent home.”