Fire Chief Ernest Rhodes presented a strength, weakness, opportunity and threat (SWOT) analysis of the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department to the Joint Fire Commission. Rhodes began working as chief of the Janesville Fire Department and through a shared services agreement, of the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department in March.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work,” Rhodes said.
He addressed the Joint Fire Commission of the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department, which on June 19 met at the town hall.
“We want to get a quick one-year action plan going,” he said.
The whole department had the opportunity to give input, he said.
“I wanted to know where we saw ourselves, and a good way to do that is a SWOT,” he said. “Based off the SWOT, we developed a one-year goal to get us moving in the right direction, as far as leadership and organizational movement. We’re trying to move the needle to make sure that we feel our department’s engaged.”
Rhodes began by looking at the mission of the fire department: “To provide the highest level of emergency prevention and preparedness services through effective safety code compliance, educational programs, community service to all who live, work and visit or invest in our communities,” he said. The SWOT helps the department meet its mission.
Listed first as a strength in the SWOT is “people.” “That is our most precious resource,” Rhodes said, “that is why we’re looking at WRS (the Wisconsin Retirement System).”
Another strength of the department is a good knowledge base with a lot of experience, he said.
“We definitely are tapping into the knowledge here at the fire department,” he said. “You’ll see the chiefs here a lot talking about operations, making presentations.”
According to the SWOT, the department also has a lot of pride in the organization.
“We are committed to what we do,” he said. “We like to do a good job. We appreciate the opportunity to serve the community and we have a lot of pride about that.”
Other strengths include equipment, community support, a committed command staff, members who are open to change/optimistic and good communication between chiefs.
An attitude of “always get it done,” is a strength but he said it may also be a weakness.
Listed first as a weakness is limited funding.
That, Rhodes said is a big weakness.
“The fire dept is in a position where we’re having about 1,000 calls a year,” he said. “We really need a full-time fire department but we have funding problems.”
Another challenge is committed and available staffing. Not enough members live close by (for callbacks) and new inexperienced people.
“The manpower issue is a nationwide issue,” he said.
Commenting on the Milton area specifically, he said, “We rely on our volunteers, we rely on our full-time, part-time people. That’s tough, that’s a stressor to the system to maintain a three-man engine company or two-man ambulance with at least a paramedic.”
Facilities are a weakness based on condition and location. The community has been talking for years about building a new fire station.
“That’s a weakness for us,” Rhodes said. “That’s also a drain on our personnel because they get excited. They want a new facility. They want to be proud of their fire station and it’s just not happening. It can be a demotivator to a degree. We really need to look at that in the future here to see how we can move that along.”
Town board chair and fire commission member Bryan Meyer asked Rhodes to comment further on how he saw location as a weakness.
Rhodes said at first blush, he thought Milton and Milton Township could use more than one location and a location more centrally located to the entire area.
City council member and fire commission member Lynda Clark noted the fire station is another discussion.
As the new fire chief, Rhodes said early on he got the message that there was not a lot of accountability or follow-through by administration.
“I think we’re working really hard to fix that with one of our goals,” he said.
Next, he spoke of discipline and consequences: “It’s hard to discipline a volunteer, but the fire doesn’t care if you’re a volunteer or professional firefighter. We’re working on expectations, leadership, job descriptions, communication. If you’re going to volunteer or be a part-time employee, there’s expectations. And we expect you to be a part of that and to embrace that and follow that. That’s a weakness.”
Rhodes turned again to “always get it done.” “I can tell you these ladies and gentlemen who serve this community do have an attitude ‘we’ll get it done,’” he said. “But if we don’t have the proper resources and equipment and maybe not enough manpower, we’ll get it done but we’re kind of skimping by, we’re kind of cutting corners because we don’t have the resources.”
As people and resources potentially decrease and call volumes go up, he said “we may not always be able to get it done.”
With regard to standard operating guidelines (SOGs), the department is looking at SOGs through public safety company Lexipol and common SOGs with Janesville and Milton and Milton Township.
Also being looked at are minimum training standards and driver/operator training.
Unfortunately to be a volunteer firefighter, Rhodes said, “It takes a ton of time so I’m excited about the WRS aspect because we want to draw these folks in because it’s basically a full-time job.”
The IT infrastructure, hardware and even lack of a Cloud-based reporting system maybe could be a weakness, he said.
Lastly, he said communication from administration to line personnel could be improved.
The Milton and Milton Township Fire Department began sharing administration with Janesville in October 2017.
“We still feel that the shared services, our administration, interoperability and resources, is still a very good strategic move,” Rhodes said. “It’s exciting to be able to look at that as an opportunity.”
Janesville and Milton staffs have been meeting together. Rhodes said, “We’re really looking at shared services, we’re really trying to maximize resources of both organizations.”
Other opportunities include:
- Improve community knowledge of how department operates and facilitate needs.
- Review/re-evaluate budget.
- New SOGs. Among those being worked on is a common Mayday SOG. “Mayday” refers to when a firefighter requires emergency assistance.
- Review and restructure organizational chart/responsibilities.
- Economic development.
- Outside/private companies coming in for profit.
“We feel fire service nestled public safety/public government is really good,” he said. “We always worry about that and that somebody could really just come in and offer very little service at a very low price.”
- Personnel leaving – no incentive to stay.
- Perception of being taken over.
“Perception that Janesville maybe would come in and take over the whole fire operation,” Rhodes said. “We can still keep the names on the side of the trucks because what we’re really shooting for is the best service possible to both communities. So the perception of we would come in and get rid of everybody or rename everything that’s not going to happen. That was the perception.”
That isn’t an issue anymore, said Rhodes, and the deputy chiefs present agreed.
- Commercial development in TIF districts.
Commissioner Lynda Clark asked why is that a threat.
With explosive growth, Rhodes said demand department resources might increase while the budget might not.