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A fire call Saturday in the town of Campbell sparked La Crosse’s fire chief to ignite the concept of forming a regional department.

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La Crosse Fire Chief Ken Gilliam

Ken Gilliam

But Chief Ken Gilliam, just shy of a year into the job, said leaders of La Crosse’s neighboring municipalities extinguished the idea. That means — at times — firefighters closest to an emergency won’t be the first to respond when another agency needs help.

“It’s like stepping through a mine field because of past failed attempts at mutual efforts,” Gilliam said. “It’s like people are afraid to even talk about it.”

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Campbell Fire Chief Nate Melby

Nate Melby

Those charged with leading neighboring municipalities and fire departments say they’re willing to listen to Gilliam, although some have warmed to the idea more than others.

“I know that Campbell residents don’t want to be annexed by La Crosse, and the services that Campbell provides to residents are important to its identity,” Campbell Fire Chief Nate Melby said.

Saturday’s call

At 10:23 a.m. Saturday, a neighbor reported smoke from the roof at 1818 La Fond Ave. on Campbell’s east side. The town’s volunteer firefighters assembled at the department and arrived in seven minutes after residents had evacuated.

At 10:37 a.m., the agency requested help through the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System — a planned, complex and evolving mutual aid measure developed in 2010.

For a structure fire in Campbell where there is no hydrant available, the first agencies to respond with engines and water-hauling trucks are crews from Onalaska and La Crescent because the agencies are similarly sized and train together, Melby said.

At the time, Gilliam points out, La Crosse had firefighters available just two miles away at its Gillette Street station. He estimates their response time at three minutes.

“Other fire departments are driving through our city emergent, past staffed fire stations, to get to neighboring incidents,” he wrote in an e-mail to neighboring fire leaders. “Please appreciate my frustrations knowing that we had 24 personnel on-duty, in multiple available fire apparatus, that could have potentially made a difference for a neighbor.”

Shelby firefighters drove through La Crosse without lights and sirens to Campbell’s fire station to cover the jurisdiction, Melby said. A Holmen engine responded when Onalaska only sent a water-hauling truck. Bangor’s fire chief — not firefighters — also was dispatched.

Within 30 minutes of the call, fire officials determined a malfunctioning chimney sent smoke through roof vents. All units cleared by 11:37 a.m.

La Crosse, an accredited agency with 92 firefighters, should be the first department called for mutual aid in Campbell because of the shared border, Gilliam argues.

“They have the ability to call us and they don’t,” he said. “We want to help our neighbors. We want to put fires out and help people.”

Also in place is a mutual aid agreement signed off in 2015 by the La Crosse, Holmen, Onalaska, West Salem, Campbell, Shelby, Bangor and Farmington fire departments that allows firefighters to enter other jurisdictions only when asked.

“When would we call La Crosse? Any time we need them,” Melby said.

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Campbell Fire Dept

The Campbell Fire Department.

‘A regional situation is a possibility’

Gilliam advocates for a consolidated fire service serving La Crosse, Onalaska, Holmen, Shelby and Campbell, and he says now is the time to explore the concept as the Onalaska and Holmen fire chiefs retire this summer.

A regional agency could reduce administrative costs and spending for duplicate expensive equipment used for fire and medical emergencies and response times in some municipalities, Gilliam said. He does not believe any firefighter would lose a job.

“There is plenty of work for everybody,” he said.

Career firefighters in La Crosse, Onalaska and Holmen, who belong to the same union, are on board with a regional approach, union president Lance Tryggestad said.

“Fires and emergencies don’t care about the politics or hurt egos,” he said. “We want what’s best for the people.”

Onalaska Mayor Joe Chilsen said he would endorse the concept if officials can develop a configuration that would benefit all municipalities.

“We know the history, but let’s step forward and let’s make history ourselves,” he said.

The city plans to fill the vacancy created when Onalaska Fire Chief Don Dominick retires June 22 to oversee its 12 full-time and 20 part-time firefighters.

The village of Holmen is looking to fill its assistant chief spot and to replace Holmen Fire Chief Paul Menches when he retires Aug. 17. The village is open to discussions of a regional fire department.

“It is a good time,” Village President Nancy Proctor said. “A regional situation is a possibility down the road.”

Holmen’s six full-time and 18 part-time firefighters cover the largest area at 96 square miles, Menches said. The village has the second-largest population in La Crosse County with continued growth.

A regional concept should start small, Menches recommended. Begin with La Crosse, Onalaska and Holmen – municipalities with career firefighters and the bulk of the county’s population – and then expand.

“I’m in his corner,” Menches said of Gilliam.

La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat supports the city’s fire chief, pointing out that multiple agencies crossing La Crosse presents a safety risk. The primary concern must be how to deliver the highest level of fire protection instead of what is written on the side of fire trucks, he said.

“Honestly, I don’t see much changing,” Kabat said. “We’ve talked about these types of regional issues with neighbors and we have real nice general discussions about regionalizing and sharing, but at end of day nothing really changes.”

The Shelby Fire Department is willing to discuss, although it’s not the first time the topic was raised, Assistant Chief Tony Holinka said. The town’s 40 volunteer firefighters handle about 350 calls annually and activate MABAS between three and five times a year.

“I’m not saying we’re interested, but we’re open to coming to the table,” town Chairman Tim Candahl said. “I’m also not saying we’re not interested.”

Melby, Campbell’s fire chief, approaches the concept with caution.

“The future could look like a lot of different things. Are there advantages to a consolidated, larger department? For some, but not for all,” he said. “Smaller volunteer agencies keep taxes lower.”

Campbell’s 35 volunteer firefighters assemble and arrive at fire calls within five to 10 minutes, he said. The national standard for volunteer departments is 10 minutes. They often arrive sooner for medical calls.

Melby initiated the county fire department mutual aid agreement adopted in 2015, a pact that came into play during a fiery six-vehicle pileup on Interstate 90 in 2014.

“It was, ‘Who is closest? Get them coming right now,’ ” he said.

He’s willing to discuss a regional department, recognizing it would save assembly time.

“But, there is a significant cost to that,” he said. “And someone has to pay.”

Anne Jungen can be reached at ajungen@lacrossetribune.com or follow her on Twitter at @LCTCrimeCourts.

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Police and courts reporter

Anne Jungen covers law enforcement and the criminal justice system in La Crosse County. She joined the Tribune reporting staff in December 2005. You can contact her directly at ajungen@lacrossetribune.com or 608-791-8224.

(18) comments

Jobaba

Grrr! Boots on the ground! Duty Honor Country!! Grrr Military Honors for all! Having experience as a fire fighter in no way qualifies one to make decisions of this scope.

Jenifr36

LaX_ff, thank you as well for your service. And thank you for a well thought out and well written response. I think you and I could get along on many topics. I will say while I fully understand your response regarding the word professional, I don't fully agree with it. I agree it is your profession, but I believe volunteer or career, we are all professionals. But that is neither here nor there in the conversation.

I have been in the fire service in various departments for 30+ years. While it might seem that I am dredging up problems from many years ago, in reality the fire chiefs and personnel of surrounding departments have served just as long. Those memories of being rebuffed and ostracized will take a long time to be truly forgotten. And if you read carefully what I wrote, I stated the fire department administration. I think deep down every firefighter who is boots on the ground, wants to help each other, take care of each other and has deep respect for each other. Unfortunately in the world in which we live, our administrators and leaders sometimes take a different view. I'm guessing if you talk to other firefighters in the volunteer departments, you will find the insurance policy and having to pay outrageous fees was the reason the resentment towards cooperation with La Crosse has occurred. And I truly felt like your Chief was inferring that the other departments are the problem because they don't want to discuss the possibilities. I apologize if the assumption was incorrect. Sometimes the way the reporter writes things makes it difficult to know for sure what they are saying.

Like you, I believe that our citizens and patient should come first no matter what. I hope that soon all the services can come to the table and find the best way to make that happen. I was just hoping that your Chief takes a look at the pitfalls from the previous attempts to try to smooth the waters and truly show that La Crosse wants to be a part, a valuable part, of the fire service serving the whole Coulee Region.

Again, thank you for your service and the interesting perspective.

Jenifr36

The current La Crosse Fire Chief brings up some interesting ideas regarding the possibilities of a regional fire service. Unfortunately, I believe he called out some of the chiefs of other area departments without doing his homework, or even looking into the history of his own department. The idea of regional cooperation is not a new one, nor has it been considered a negative option, until La Crosse Fire Administration has gotten involved. Their past attitude and obvious disdain for departments that aren’t “professional” in their opinion, have caused a rift that will be difficult for Chief Gilliam to overcome.

While the other fire departments in the area may not be full time career departments, that doesn’t make them any less “professional” it just makes them more dedicated in my mind. The fact that these volunteers or paid per call firefighters work a full time job and still find time to train and respond to emergencies makes them steadfast and committed to their communities.

Also, while other departments in the county and surrounding areas have jumped at any opportunity to help their neighbors, La Crosse fire has put so many restrictions and requirements on their assistance that they were truly not worth the effort. At one time they required the department requesting their assistance to have an outrageous amount of insurance that small towns couldn’t even begin to match it. At other times they have tried to require a payment for their services which was more than most small town fire budgets.

So Chief Gilliam, I would suggest rather than throw other fire departments “under the bus” so to speak, you review your own departments’ history and interaction with the other area departments. That should give you a better understanding of the reluctance the other departments have to attempt to work with La Crosse Fire again, only to find out that once again La Crosse Fire wants all the benefits and none of the “cooperation.”

LaX_ff

Jenifr36 -- If you are a volunteer for one of the surrounding FDs, as it appears, thank you for your service. I, and I would say ALL LCFD firefighters respect your dedication to your community and understand the sacrifice because most of us....myself include...were dedicated volunteers for many years prior to being hired. That being said, I will not apologize for referring to myself and others that work at the stations for shifts as professional. Firefighting and EMS is our profession. It's what we train for and respond to daily, and thousands of times per year. I am no more committed NOR LESS to my community than you are.

As far as what the article says and what has transpired since Chief Gilliam began working here, how do you feel anyone has been thrown under the bus? I think asking people to come to the table and calling them out when decisions are made that have negative consequences is nothing more than asking the question. Am I wrong?

You brought up many historical issues including insurance requirements....I can honestly say that's a new one. I've been here many years and I've never heard that. You bring up charging for calls, I believe that was from the 80s when neither you nor I were even around. MABAS has been around for a few years but not used appropriately for whatever reasons. But again, MABAS is NOT to supplement staffing or to be a crutch for any agency. Chief Gilliam has gone to the neighboring chiefs early on and asked them to call us; just call us and we will come. No charge. We will assist in anyway possible, pick up and return to quarters. Period.

Volunteerism is sadly down but it's the facts. But not calling a neighboring FD, who is looking to "cooperate" and honestly with what benefits other than helping neighbors INCLUDING improving the safety of the other firefighters, is ridiculous. When Stoddard, Shelby, Onalaska, Holmen and Bangor all respond lights and siren to an emergency when at least 24 La Crosse Firefighters are on duty (9 of them within 3-5 mins away) there are decisions that are being made that need some discussions. The public AND you and I deserve better.

So if my house is on fire, my family is in danger and LCFD needs assistance, I know they will call the nearest help which may or may not be you. They will not bring up issues that happened 30-40 years ago and wait 20-30 mins for assistance.

Jobaba

And if you think about it, why not do this with education? Of course they had their unions busted...It was cheaper. So to have one big public safety organization, they too should do without unions.

Jobaba

And if it is money we are after, there are many many many places where the police carry their fire gear in the trunk of the squad. Yepper, they do both jobs...sucessfully. Try bringing that idea up on a cop or firefighter. How the tears do flow!

Jobaba

Isn't it funny that the police and fire use different methods for staffing blue collar workers? Police use population and fire uses actual calls. But since fire will roll for a hangnail, they have lots of calls. Perhaps if both got back to basics we could save more money...and isn't that the point? If we can save one life it's worth it!

Jobaba

And after years in industry my horse can tell you the oldest dodge in the books. Centralize/decentralize. Every few years a new top man will enter the picture and announce that there are vast sums of money to be saved if the organization will only centralize operations. And of course after a few more years the next top man will enter and declare that decentralization will save lots o'money. And who is right? Yes, yes, they both are right, depending on the circumstances. But there simply is no doubt that cost will rise for some. But if we can save one life...

Jobaba

Then there is the funniest reason ever come up with by man. "If we can save one life it will be worth it!" We just don't do things that way. Every year the NTSB comes up with hundreds of recommendations specifically to save lives which in turn, airlines, railroads and auto makers ignore. We work on the tombstone effect. We the death become to numerous to ignore, we act. Think about it. Shouldn't those college bars be severely restricted? Not all kids die drunk in the river. Shouldn't our golf courses be outlawed? Every year someone gets hit by lightening. This farming thing, gotta go, every year a tractor rolls. Yeah, if we can save one life... no matter what the cost, right?

Jobaba

Bad idea. First, many of the smaller communities did well with volunteer departments. Second, not all villages have manufacturing, or trains or bluffs or rivers. Yet they would pay dearly for experts trained in all those things. There is no doubt taxes would increase for little payoff for some. Third, smaller burgs can contract fire protection from large cities. But speaking of MABAS mentioned in the article - what happens when a firefighter from one city is injured in another city? Who pays for the additional coverage of a firefighter when one is off duty for injury? Chiefs don't like to talk about that. I remember when an Ona cop was sent to Hamilton to shoot a black man. He was off a minimum of 3 days and Ona paid for it all. The people of small cities have a right to determine their own destiny and pay for what they need, not what somebody wants to give them.

LaX_ff

Jobaba --
You are correct on your first statement...SMALLER communities DID (past tense) well with volunteer departments. The Holmen Are Fire Department is now responding to over 800 calls per year, AND CLIMBING, covering almost 20K residents. Onalaska is twice that for call volume. So relying on volunteers to leave work during the day or home on the nights is less of an option. The call volume drives staffing. When someone calls 911 they expect a response in a timely manner. They deserve it. And it's not just residents, it's visitors as well. I for instance don't pay taxes in Onalaska but I frequently visit there and expect an appropriate response if I call 911.
Little payoff? I don't understand how it can be viewed as little payoff. Volunteerism is down. It's a fact. So fewer volunteer responders + increased calls to 911 for service =....??
MABAS doesn't solve everything NOR is supposed to. MABAS is NOT for supplementing lack of staffing. A regional approach with a regional governing body with everyones interests at the table is more efficient. Why purchase $500k engines and $1M ladder trucks when they are already sprinkled throughout the region? That's not being efficient and the payoff for those purchases are questionable.

Jobaba

Very shaky. For police it is population. If it were valid calls we wouldn't have police. And how many fire calls are for ambulance service? In fact how many fires do we have per year? The fact remains that both services have claimed specialty service for more pay. For the rest of your claims, see my other comments. It's cheaper!!

Redwall

"...the first agencies to respond with engines and water-hauling trucks are crews from Onalaska and La Crescent because the agencies are similar sized and train together, Melby said."

Huh? And for that ridiculous reason fire fighters two miles away sit on their hands?

If the City of La Crosse can't manage around that little impediment, why would we believe they can manage a regional fire department?

Its easy to see another 3 new fire stationss and 50 full time firefighters in the plans; no wonder the unions like it.

No thanks.

LaX_ff

Redwall your comment makes no sense. You do know that it is Campbell Chief Melby that you quoted right?

Sending the nearest units makes more sense than current practice of "similar size" etc....would you agree?

Redwall

Yes I agree. My intended point was that if the chiefs cannot find a common sense solution under the current structure, why would we give them a larger, more expensive, more complex super-department?

LaX_ff

Redwall your making the point FOR creating a cleaner more efficient FD. It's the outlying Chiefs that won't even call for assistance or come to the table to discuss options. Fire Districting is NOT a new concept. It's all over the country and in WI. North Shore Fire Dept. South Shore Fire Department. Green Bay METRO fire department. It's improving reponses and saving lives and property.

Cassandra2

Redwall would be happy to have those firefighters sitting on their hands, waiting to get to work if it was HIS home.

PaulK

Elected officials should pursue any idea that enhances service and saves money.

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