Shared services between the Janesville Fire Department and the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department have come to “a fork the road,” said command staff.
“We’re not at a crisis,” emphasized Ernie Rhodes, who is fire chief of both departments.
Rather, he said commanding officers have been looking at what the next step might be for increasing operational efficiencies. Rhodes addressed the Joint Fire Commission during a virtual meeting May 20.
Rhodes has been the fire chief for 13 months. During this time, he said he’s learned a lot.
“I know that the Milton Fire Department is a very strong fire department, the people are the best. It is truly a family there and (the members) are dedicated to serve their community,” he began.
Because opportunities to enhance efficiency are many, he said, “I think we have come to a fork in the road to where we need to decide what is best for Milton, for sure. But, do we continue with shared services?”
If yes, he said there should be one command staff and one operation.
“COVID-19 has definitely highlighted that there’s two different departments operating in two different ways but with very similar processes that require the same amount of attention,” he said. “And COVID is preventing me from doing that. I’ve had to heavily rely on the battalion chiefs and they’ve done a phenomenal job. But going forward, we need to really look at merging the operations.”
Milton Battalion Chief Chris Lukas agreed, “We’re at a fork in the road. We were doing some really good things before this pandemic hit. We had some good administrative staff meetings between both organizations. I think that the ground work was being laid. This pandemic really did cause a lot of disruption and confusion.”
Although a consultant had said one person could be the chief of both fire departments, Lukas said, “I never felt that that was a possibility. I still don’t think it’s a possibility. It’s OK, it’s working. We have no problems at all with what Chief Rhodes has done up until this point. I think he’s done a lot.”
Overall, he said, “We’re getting by. We’re doing a lot better than we were but I don’t think it’s fair to Chief Rhodes to try to run two departments two different ways.”
From his perspective, Lukas said, “We got to go all in or all out.”
He acknowledged that could mean “the removal or the going away of the Milton Fire Department, but you got to do what’s right for the people. You got to do what’s right for the citizens.”
Rhodes said, “One chief can run an organization but if it’s two fire departments, it has to be ran as one. To really get the true efficiency, as Chief Lukas said, it’s either all in or the fire department should really consider going towards building its full-time, full-service fire department.”
Commission member Bryan Meyer asked if “all in” would eliminate the possibility of having volunteer members.
“No, because of the budget,” Rhodes replied.
Commission member Lynda Clark said, “I thought we were going to the same system.”
Rhodes said the departments have the same response system (automatic aid), but training programs (although they try to train on the same subjects), HR, staffing policies and command structures are different, for example.
“We have been working to combine systems but it’s to the point where I think we need to be transparent with the board,” he said. “You got to figure this out all the way because doing some things the same but not others doesn’t create an efficient operation and really clear leader’s intent. It doesn’t create one true organizational philosophy that I think is necessary for every modern-day fire department.”
Commission member Theresa Rusch said, “I hadn’t realized it was different. What’s holding us up? I thought we were adopting same policies and procedures and sharing property and personnel.”
Commission member Bryan Meyer, too, asked what would be the difference.
Commission member Bill Wilson asked, “What does this mean? No Janesville Fire Department or Milton Fire Department? A merged department? Town and city contract with Janesville?”
Lukas said, “You’re on the right track. Milton Fire Department is busy for size. Take having to manage that with minimal staff. Imagine that only 10 times busier. There are some similarities. There are a lot of things we’ve been working to do the same. We set up command vehicles the same. We use the same tactical board. We try to implement similar SOGs. We work with each other on calls, but first and foremost, the Milton Fire Department doesn’t have the staffing. We have on most days, four people here. We don’t even have an engine and an ambulance staffed. The city of Janesville has that and then some. So we try to operate the same and have the same operating guidelines, it’s difficult when you look at the fact that on this call I might have an engine and an ambulance every time when I’m in Janesville. But when I’m in Milton I’m going to get an ambulance out the door, but then I only have two people at the station. I have to wait for somebody else to come.”
Janesville is a two-paramedic system. Milton, which began offering paramedic service last year is one.
“As much as we try to do things the same," Lukas said, "the budget and the makeup of the department and the personnel and staffing don’t allow us to do that.”
He clarified, “I’m not saying full-blown 100% consolidation tomorrow. I think we all, at least the command staff here, and I think Chief Rhodes – I know nobody wants to talk about this but I think a lot of organizations would eventually like to see a countywide department. I think Milton and Janesville are some of the forerunners as far as that goes.”
What is the next step? Does the city of Milton and the town of Milton contract with the city of Janesville?
“I don’t know,” Lukas said. “These are things that we’re happy to give input on and give you our opinion on but these are the decisions you have to make. I think that the two departments can figure a way to work together and get more on the same page. How fast that happens, I don’t know.”
Because the shared services agreement is an agreement between the three municipalities, commission members said they would discuss the topic with their governing bodies.
An intergovernmental agreement for shared services, approved by Janesville and the city and town of Milton, went into effect Feb. 1, 2017.
In July 2017, Randy Banker, who was the chief at the time and giving an update to the Janesville city council, said sharing could include equipment, resources, training and possibly down the road a fire station.