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State lawmakers, officials meet with Endeavor firefighters to discuss dangers of highway calls − and stiffer penalties for distracted drivers

May 18, 2019

ENDEAVOR — Liz Bourdeau says she feels nervous every time her husband, Endeavor/Moundville Fire Chief Mike Bourdeau, responds to an emergency call on a state highway.

“There’s nothing more dangerous than that,” Liz Bourdeau said of the dangers firefighters face. “This is our home. This is our family.”

Several state legislators, Department of Transportation officials and various authorities from Marquette and Sauk counties gathered at the Endeavor/Moundville fire station Wednesday night to discuss the issue of highway dangers.

The group of public safety officials and lawmakers discussed distracted driving and whether tougher penalties are necessary to create incentives for drivers to slow down and reduce the risks for emergency workers.

“It’s unfortunate that we even have to have this discussion,” said state Rep. Jon Plumer, R-Lodi. “It’s a human life. Slow down. Move over.”

The dangers and fears of responding to calls on highways are felt every day for the small fire department in a district of about 400 people.

On Dec. 11, 2015, 34-year veteran firefighter Larry Millard, 56, was struck by a car while responding to an Interstate 39 crash in Marquette County. He died from his injuries, opening a wound that still feels fresh more than three years later.

“If we strengthen the penalties, maybe people will think twice,” Mike Bourdeau said. “We want to go home to our families after the call is over.”

Leading lawmakers

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, has taken the lead on drafting legislation in the state Assembly that would aim to train motorists to be more alert on highways by establishing clear, tough penalties.

Shankland said she’s been branching out and earning endorsements from various groups throughout the state, which could make a bill more likely to pass a bipartisan vote in the Assembly sometime later this year.

Among the possible increased penalties for striking emergency workers due to distracted driving could be a $10,000 minimum fine or jail time, Shankland said.

Marquette County District Attorney Chad Hendee said the solution is not always clear cut, but he supports the will of the public.

Highway dangers

Lake Delton Fire Chief Darren Jorgenson said he sent out an email to fire chiefs across the state seeking input ahead of Wednesday night’s gathering.

He said he wasn’t prepared for how many responses he gathered about how many firefighters have either been injured or killed by motorists while responding to highway calls.

Jorgenson said it makes him feel better to know state legislators are listening to firefighters’ and police officers’ concerns.

Mike Bourdeau said he tells his firefighters they should think defensively while responding to highway calls and assume cars are trying to hit them.

He added that fire departments more often respond to highway calls than structure fires.

Marquette County Sheriff Joe Konrath said he believes tougher laws on distracted driving and injuring emergency workers could help save lives.

Konrath recalled an incident roughly six years ago when a Blystone’s Towing employee was struck by a car on a highway and suffered injuries that affected him for the remainder of his life.

Creating incentives

Shankland said perhaps another method to reducing distracted driving deaths could be to create incentives for people to follow the laws and to make them aware of what those laws are.

If drivers see a sign warning to slow down or face heavy fines or jail time if they injure someone, they will be more likely to think twice, she said.

Another solution could be to establish emergency zones with temporary speed limits. A sign labeled 25 mph might catch drivers’ attention immediately and cause them to be more aware of emergency workers on the side of the highway, Shankland said.

“The key factor here is to educate the public,” Konrath said.

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