‘Major milestone’: Communities from Dane, Rock, Jefferson counties vote to form regional fire protection district

EDGERTON, Wis. — Representatives from nearly a dozen municipalities in Dane, Rock and Jefferson counties voted Wednesday night to form a combined fire protection district that will cover more than 200 square miles and more than 25,000 residents.

The vote paves the way for a unified fire department to provide service to the cities of Edgerton and Milton and numerous surrounding townships, a move Milton Mayor Anissa Welch called a “major milestone.”

“It’s rare that you have 10 municipalities – cities and townships – meeting together and also solving a problem for everybody involved,” she said.

On February 1, 2023, firefighters and first responders from the combined fire protection district will respond to calls across the territory currently covered by the Edgerton and Milton fire protection districts.

RELATED: Milton council approves memorandum of understanding as city looks to join Edgerton Fire Protection District

Despite the communities’ varying sizes, they came together to find a long-term solution to a staffing issue many departments face.

“Part of the reason behind all of this – the labor pool, it is so hard to find not only skilled workers but the volunteers… so we’re just all competing with each other,” Fire Chief Randall Pickering from the Edgerton Fire Protection District said.

Nearly three years ago, Milton Fire Chief Ernest Rhodes said his agency was in the midst of a “staffing crisis.” A 2021 report from the non-partisan Wisconsin Policy Forum similarly concluded fire departments and emergency medical services were facing a growing challenge as call volumes increase.

RELATED: Report: Fire, EMS departments nearing crisis in Wisconsin as 911 calls rise, staffing declines

Financial reasons also helped drive the plan forward; in January, Jeff Kelnz, the chair of the Town of Harmony, cited the “substantial increase” in prices for fire coverage, driven in part by rising wages, as a factor.

Work on the proposed merger began in earnest 18 months ago; Wednesday’s vote sets into motion a multi-year plan leaders from the various jurisdictions hope will be a sustainable long-term path forward.

“There’s short-term ways to fix problems and that kind of stuff, but to find something that’s sustainable over time, that’s really hard,” Pickering said.

Pickering likened Wednesday’s vote to the starting pistol being fired at the beginning of a race; the next three months, he said, will be an all-out sprint.

Following the combination, the agency’s focus will shift toward engineering work on new facilities. When all is said and done, the fire protection district will have three or four separate fire stations from which any of their crews can work as needed, Pickering said.