Officers will serve village part-time, hold additional positions elsewhere
Alex Prochaska, Editorial Intern
Sergeant Wyatt Miller of the Village of Arena Police Department and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources warden Benjamin Gruber received ‘Life Saving Awards’ at the Nov. 7 Arena Village Board meeting. The two men were recognized for responding to an emergency call, performing CPR and thereby saving a woman’s life the night of Oct. 11. After giving the men their awards, Nicholas Stroik, Arena Police Department chief of police, announced that the entire department would be going part-time.
Police Employment Status Change
Stroik, explaining who made the decision for the Arena officers to change status, said: “[Myself] and Sergeant Miller requested to change employment status from full-time to part-time, the Public Safety Committee voted to accept the employment status change, and [it] was ultimately approved by the village board. The Arena Police Department will continue to provide the same professional level of safety and security to the community, but on a part time basis.”
“Many factors played into the decision to change status to part time, including low morale,” Stroik explained. “However, ultimately, the decision was made in the best interest of our officers and their families.”
Stroik says the low morale is in large part due to the Arena Village Board of Trustees.
“Watching board members smile and laugh during our announcement to change employment status confirmed our decision was appropriate.”Village Of Arena Chief of Police Nicholas Stroik
“As Chief of Police, with two decades of law enforcement experience, it is my responsibility to ensure that our officers are operating within the law, policy, parameters set forth by me as chief as well as the Public Safety Committee, and are able to articulate their decisions to me as well as in reports submitted to the District Attorney’s office,” said Stroik. “The board, bearing zero law enforcement experience, has attempted to challenge the law enforcement decisions made by our department, including questioning our department’s response to mutual aid requests by other agencies, and our response to EMS, fire, and crash calls.”
“No records were requested so no answer is given.”Arena Village President KAte Reimann, responding to questions about resident concerns
In addition to professional disagreements, Stroik expressed police officers and other public employees feel they are not appreciated or respected by the board:
“Hearing board members make statements such as: ‘Arena is a stepping stone,’ ‘If employees want health benefits they can go somewhere else,’ ‘We don’t need police, nothing happens in Arena’ and board members refusing to meet with the police department to address concerns or answer questions led me to believe that the board was not in support of not only the police department but employees in general, noting our public works superintendent recently left as well. Watching board members smile and laugh during our announcement to change employment status confirmed our decision was appropriate.”
“This wasn’t a stepping stone for any of us,” Stroik said. “I’ve been here for 17 years.”
Considering the future of the department, Stroik thinks much has to change for things to get better.
“Unfortunately, without change, finding qualified officers to work full-time may prove to be a challenge. As Chief, I earn a salary of $50k/yr and although we are on the Wisconsin Retirement System, the village does not currently offer health insurance. I believe if members of the board stop thinking of Arena as a ‘stepping stone,’ growth is possible and qualified long-term employees will follow. The decision to remain part time was to keep law enforcement present in Arena, even if on a part time basis. Our officers do care about our community and will continue to do our best to provide peace of mind to the residents.”
Stroik acknowledges the negative effect the status change could have on Arena residents and emphasized the police schedule is not set in stone.
“Residents will not see the law enforcement presence they are used to, and response times will be increased when our department is not on duty,” he said. “With full-time staffing, our officers worked 80+ hours a week. Transitioning to part-time, these hours will obviously decrease. However, as this decision is still new, a schedule has not yet been put in place and hours have not yet been determined.”
“Ultimately, [emergency response times will be affected by the decision]. However, being residents ourselves allowed us to respond to emergency calls when not on duty, and when available we may continue to do so.”
Stroik also emphasized the Arena Police Department still cares about and wants to serve their community.
“Our officers are still committed to the safety and security of the residents. We will continue to promote a safe environment for our residents, visitors and traveling commuters and will continue to work with our neighboring agencies to ensure this.”
When asked if the employment status changes will affect the police department or village budgets, Stroik said:
“Members of the village board have made several requests that our agency begin billing other communities when we assist their law enforcement agencies, so to start seeing other agencies begin to bill Arena for responding into our community may be a repercussion of that decision. And with neighboring agencies being significantly higher on the pay scale, that decision may affect the budget in the long run.”
Arena Village Board members at the meeting were surprised and confused by the resignations.
“I feel devastated. I have a lot of worries about our community going forward,” said Village of Arena President Kate Reimann, at the meeting before praising Stroik and Miller.
Reimann told those present at the meeting that she remembers what Arena was like prior to current law enforcement in the community: “I lived across the street from a drug house for a while. And this was back in like ’99, 2000. My children have memories of that.”
Even though the board was caught unaware by the announcement, it ultimately passed a motion 4-3 to accept the Public Safety Committee’s recommendation that Stroik and Miller go from salaried full-time to hourly part-time.
“We have no choice [but to vote yea],” Reimann said.
Stroik said he and Miller will remain living in Arena and continue working on their current open investigations. Brittany Carney, a trustee on the board, raised concern that after Stroik and Miller wrapped up their investigations, the men would leave Arena for good. Stroik said if he and Miller decided to leave in the future, they would “advise [their] committee of that, then we can visit that at a later date.”
Reimann refused to answer questions posed by Valley Sentinel by email for the story, including: “What does this decision mean for area residents?” and “What would you say to village residents that are concerned this decision will lead to increased response times for emergencies?” Reimann instead simply stated, “No records were requested so no answer is given. A record does not need to be created to fill a request.” She then proceeded to give the statutory definition of “record” and refused the opportunity to reassure residents.
At the Nov. 7 board meeting Miller and Gruber were given Life Saving Awards by Stroik for responding to an emergency call made Oct. 11 at 6:55 p.m.
Miller arrived on scene with an automated external defibrillator about two minutes after the emergency call was made and began CPR. Gruber happened to be in the area and volunteered his services, arriving about five minutes after the call. The men took turns performing CPR while waiting for mutual aid.
Arena EMS had a gap in staffing and were unable to man an ambulance from 6-11 p.m. on Oct. 11, so an ambulance from Mazomanie EMS was assigned and arrived at 7:12 p.m., approximately 17 minutes after the original emergency call. Victoria Bakken, an Arena EMT, arrived at the same time as Mazomanie EMS.
As a direct result of Miller and Gruber’s actions, the woman who had the medical emergency survived, and her family was present at the Life Saving Awards ceremony during the board meeting.
“It was the worst day of my life. My wife quit breathing,” Joe Wilkinson said, recalling the night of the emergency. “I started CPR and I hollered at my granddaughter to call 911, to get the ambulance here. And then Ben [Gruber] came to the door, and all he said was: Joe, I got this.”
The Wilkinsons have known Gruber since childhood. Joe was Gruber’s baseball coach, and Joe’s daughters went to school with Gruber’s brother Kevin. “Life comes full circle sometimes,” said Crystal, Joe’s daughter.
Joe explained that his wife passed away multiple times in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. “It’s been a struggle, but every day she’s getting a little bit stronger,” Joe said. “We know there’s a limited time involved because of her heart damage, which was rather significant. But it’s getting to the point where it’s enjoyable every day because we can interact with her yet, and without what Ben and Wyatt did, that wouldn’t be possible.”
Joe said the night the Life Saving Awards were given, his wife “actually spoke today. For the first time in a month.”
“[Miller and Gruber are] always going to be angels in my book,” Joe said. The family had nothing but thanks and gratitude for the two men.
Gruber said the award was humbling and that he is appreciative of everyone who showed up to honor the family and the first responders. He emphasized the role Miller played in the rescue.
“None of this happens without Sgt. Miller and him having the equipment and the AED available. I was happy to help. But that equipment that he had and I didn’t is what made all the difference in the world,” Gruber said.
Arena EMS Scheduling Gap
Tyler Tisdale, service director of Arena EMS, said Arena EMS was unable to send its own ambulance in response to the Oct. 11 emergency: “You have to have two EMTs to make a legal [ambulance] crew and we only had one at the time.”
“We’ve been out of service a couple times,” said Tisdale, “but it’s just because of random scheduling. And that Wednesday night [of Oct 11.], I had a meeting, and the other full-time [EMT] has another part-time job, and it was just a gap of four hours that could not be covered.”
Arena EMS has three full-time EMTs and eight volunteers. Tisdale said the Oct. 11 emergency was the first time since 2020—when full-time EMS staff were hired—that Arena EMS got an emergency call when out of service. He said Arena has gotten mutual aid from a neighboring community’s ambulance about five times from the beginning of the year through Nov. 1—and in these five instances, Tisdale said, mutual aid was needed because Arena EMS’s ambulance was out on another call, not because Arena EMS lacked a legal ambulance crew.
Similarly, Tisdale said Arena EMS has provided mutual aid to Spring Green “three or four times this year” and to Mazomanie “at least five times.”
According to Tisdale, Arena EMS’ woes aren’t immediate EMS equipment needs like some other agencies.
“Our difficulties are just our low numbers of staff and volunteering,” Tisdale said. “Nobody wants to volunteer like they used to.”
He, in addition to working full-time for Arena EMS, volunteers for the Soldier’s Grove and Cazenovia EMS programs. While some people have reached out to him in the past about volunteering, many change their minds before committing, said Tisdale.
Most Arena EMS volunteers are at least 40, he said, and it is rare for people to volunteer right out of high school. The youngest volunteer is 21, and their dad is with the Arena Fire Department—it is usually the case that young people who volunteer already have family involved in rescue services, Tisdale said.
When asked how Arena EMS could improve its service, Stroik suggested: “With three full-time EMT’s on staff, and limited volunteers, scheduling around the volunteer availability could possibly improve operations. ie; scheduling full-time EMT’s on night shifts when volunteer availability is limited.”
“However,” Stroik said, “becoming an EMR or EMT is very time consuming, as is volunteering with a department. Providing a CPR/First Aid class in communities could be a great step to greatly improving outcomes of emergencies, allowing residents to begin life saving measures prior to EMS arrival.”
Like Stroik, Tisdale had his own criticisms of local Arena politics.
“[The Village] had a referendum to fund public safety, and it was to fund a third EMT,” Tisdale said. “It would have been last year’s November election the village did. It passed by one [vote], it was like 289-288. And then it came out. Supposedly, something was written wrong in it. And then the State Department of Revenue said it couldn’t be used. And then it could be used. And then all of a sudden, we didn’t have funding for the third EMT.”
“So now, what helps pay for the third EMT? It comes out of our truck replacement fund. Yes, sir,” said Tisdale. “The Village kind of skimps on paying, they don’t think they should have to pay for full-time staffing.”
“…the Village doesn’t care if an ambulance gets out the door or not, they don’t want to pay their part of it.”Arena EMS service Director Tyler Tisdale
“It’s frustrating,” Tisdale said. “The fire department does have a fire truck from 1996 that should have been replaced in 2020 but there’s no money for it, nobody can find it, they just sit there—but they can have all these road projects and at a village board meeting it was said: ‘Oh, we’ll find the money for that.’ So they can redo all this infrastructure but the Village doesn’t care if an ambulance gets out the door or not, they don’t want to pay their part of it.”
Tisdale suggested that anybody interested in helping area EMS receive EMR or EMT training, directing those interested to Mazomanie area EMS’ recent post on Facebook:
“Ok future EMTs, it’s official. Start date for the EMT 1 class in Mazomanie is January 15 and the end date is April 11. After completing this course you can test to be an EMR, otherwise known as an Emergency Medical Responder. After summer break the EMT 2 class will then be held in fall, also at Mazomanie. After this class you can test to be an EMT and help your community.