While rumors and even media reports have talked about the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department “merging” with the City of Janesville Fire Department, the intergovernmental agreement approved this month by the municipalities does not.
The agreement is for “shared services” and goes into effect Feb. 1.
MFD interim chief Chris Lukas, who is a battalion chief for the Janesville Fire Department, told the Milton City Council Tuesday that neither merging nor dissolving the MFD was part of the shared services conversation.
“We are even hesitant to use the word ‘consolidation,’” he said, as in “functional consolidation,” but according to Lukas it’s really not even that.
Dissolving was Milton city council president Maxine Striegl’s concern.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Lukas reassured.
City of Milton Mayor Anissa Welch said nowhere in the intergovernmental agreement does it say that the council, by approving the agreement, would be consolidating the fire departments.
The intergovernmental agreement expands on previous agreements, which Lukas described started with mutual aid and automatic aid.
“This expands on that auto aid,” Lukas said.
Automatic aid has been for two types of calls: structure fires and pulseless non-breathing subjects.
Welch said one of the things she likes about the agreement is that it comes from people who know the job. That is the transition team made up of MFD command staff and consultant Jeff Roemer of RW Management Group.
RW Management was contracted in 2015 by the MFD Joint Fire Commission to assess the ability and effectiveness of the fire department and make recommendations to improve services.
While recruitment and retention has become increasingly challenging, Lukas said during an interview, so have the demands of fire departments. Fire departments, no matter what kind they are (volunteer, combination, career) have increasing demands all the time; calls for service are increasing. These were things that were discussed 2-3 years ago, he said.
Finally, he said MFD and JFD were able to get all the players together and talk.
“The intergovernmental agreement is a huge milestone for us,” he said. “…We’re going to be working a lot more with the City of Janesville and a lot more probably with Edgerton and looking at how we can help each other.”
Initially, Lukas does not anticipate a significant cost saving.
“The biggest reason we’re doing all of this is for safety, not just the safety of the community but the safety of our people,” he said. “If we’re not showing up with enough people on the scene to handle it appropriately, that’s a hazard, that’s a risk for us.”
Chief officers at both fire departments have heard concerns that shared services may result in fewer jobs, but Lukas said that’s not true.
“We may actually be able to bring more people on our responses and make them safer, more efficient,” he said.
Randy Banker, who was appointed to the position of City of Janesville Fire Chief in January 2016, concurred, saying the shared services agreement has no hidden agenda to cut staffing.
“We are already at a very lean level of staffing for the City of Janesville and the size of area that we cover,” he said.
JFD with 94 employees just finished its busiest year ever with just under 10,000 calls for service.
Banker said MFD has helped JFD meet staffing standards for structure fires.
“That’s a huge benefit to us and we’ve seen great benefits already last year with fires and the effectiveness of how we’re handing them,” he said.
MFD also has helped with ambulance calls. Regularly, JFD gets so busy they run out of ambulances.
While Janesville is bigger and has more staff, he said, MFD is just as important to JFD as JFD is to them.
To have two departments talk openly and unafraid to share ideas isn’t something to take for granted, he said.
Banker said they’ve talked about sharing fire prevention, administration and fire investigation services.
“There’s always potential for more services to be shared,” he said.
Already they have joint standard operating guidelines and have made arrangements for joint training.
In addition, Lukas said, “We’re probably going to set a lot of our equipment up the same way so if we go down there or they come here it’s the same.”
Other communities have expressed interested in the SOGs.
“A lot of departments are in the same boat we are,” Lukas said. “I think we’re the front runners. You’re going to see more and more agreements like this.”
Before the shared services agreement was approved, Janesville had plans for a fire station on the northeast side of Janesville in response to present growth and potential growth.
Conversations with MFD included the possibility of a shared fire station.
According to Janesville’s strategic plan, property was to have been purchased in 2016.
“We’re going to likely purchase the property this year,” Banker said. Obtaining funds and building a fire station could take another year, he said.
JFD is working with developers and property owners.
“It’s going to come down to what we can afford and what we can find that’s available,” he said. “Somewhere on the very north end of Janesville and the very south end of Milton.”
Lukas agreed a shared station is a possibility, adding how it’s paid for and staffed would need to be determined.
With shared services and possibly even a shared station, he said some people might look at this from a political angle and say now all the problems are solved.
“That’s not true either,” Lukas said. “This is a good step forward. The intergovernmental agreement is a huge milestone but there are a lot of things that still need to be talked about and looked at.”