Better Together

Options for Enhanced Fire Department Collaboration in the Fox Valley

June 2022


Fire and emergency medical service (EMS) agencies across Wisconsin are facing intensifying fiscal and service-level challenges that are threatening existing service models and prompting consideration of new approaches. These challenges stem, in part, from the strict property tax levy limits facing Wisconsin municipalities as well as growing costs associated with increased calls for service. Escalating staff recruitment and retention barriers stemming from the state’s tight labor market and extra demands created by the pandemic also have exacerbated the challenges for many departments.

Fire departments in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley generally enjoy a higher level of staffing and resources when compared to their peers and have a long history of cooperation, including strong mutual aid agreements and a newly formed regional fire academy. Yet, at the same time, these departments are challenged by growing service demands and the same fiscal limitations experienced by other municipal governments across the state. For some, particular challenges have emerged with regard to rising EMS calls.

In recognition of the strong spirit of cooperation that already exists, several fire chiefs from the Fox Valley approached the Wisconsin Policy Forum (WPF) to help them consider options for enhanced collaboration or new service sharing arrangements as a means of mutually addressing some of their common challenges. This report responds to that request and covers a range of service sharing options for the fire departments serving Appleton, Grand Chute, Kaukauna, Neenah-Menasha, and Oshkosh.

Specifically, the analysis covers five distinct areas of fire department operations that were identified in consultation with the chiefs: training; special operations; community risk reduction; fleet maintenance; and EMS quality control and oversight. Possibilities for joint purchasing and shared information technology systems and platforms also were considered in the context of several of those areas.

For each service area, we considered a continuum of less to more comprehensive options. Those on the more comprehensive side would establish new organizations, such as a Regional Training Bureau or joint fire investigations resource. Other options are much more limited, such as codifying existing practices regarding vehicle loans by adopting formal intergovernmental agreements.

The analysis was conducted with the participation of the fire chiefs and staff. In fact, while not endorsing any specific approach, the chiefs and other subject matter experts from the five participating fire departments spoke and met regularly with Forum researchers throughout the study process to share information and discuss operational details of various service sharing options.

In the report, we lay out the results of our analysis. It is important to note that its purpose was not to recommend specific service sharing approaches or implementation plans, but instead to present a range of potential options and to provide sufficient analysis that will allow decision-makers to determine which (if any) should be considered for more detailed study and implementation.