Local firefighters, city council members, county board members, and other interested members of the public gathered at Onalaska City Hall on Tuesday afternoon in an effort to start a conversation about regional collaboration.
Onalaska Mayor Joe Chilsen and La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat both helped to facilitate the meeting.
Mayor Chilsen was pleased with the turnout and conversation, saying that he believes the answers to all of the questions surrounding the complicated issue could be found in people that attended the meeting.
"This is a communication piece. We just need to talk to one another to make sure that we keep our citizens safe, number one, and then, maybe we can save some money," Chilsen said. "That would be a number two."
Chief Ken Gilliam with the La Crosse Fire Department assured those at the meeting that he is not seeking a hostile takeover. Instead, he is suggesting that an outside consultant visit the area to see what possibilities exist for merging fire departments.
"I'm genuinely reaching out to help our neighbors. I would hope that they would reciprocate, and it's about relationships," Gilliam said. "How it will look 10 years from now, we will see how it goes, but I think today was a great step in the right direction."
That put some volunteer firefighters at ease.
"I don't like the idea of being taken over by another department, but hearing what's going on today, it sounds a little bit like we can all work together," said Gary Simenson, a volunteer firefighter with Campbell Fire Department.
The conversation comes as both Holmen Fire Department and Onalaska Fire Department prepare to say goodbye to their chiefs. Mayor Kabat says that during times of change it is healthy to ask why operations run the way they do.
A major topic of discussion was improving mutual aid agreements. The recent fire at La Fond Avenue on French Island was a point of contention during the meeting.
"We got a bum rap from people just saying, 'You didn't get there in time. You should have done this, should have done this,'" Simenson said. "But, what we really needed was manpower and water."
The La Crosse Fire Department responded to that fire within minutes with later aid from fire departments in Shelby, Onalaska, La Crescent, and Stoddard.
"Everybody that showed up on scene collaboratively together to get that structure fire out, actually a second structure that was catching fire out," Gilliam said. "So, all's well that ends well."
However, Gilliam says that initial calls from that fire highlight the disjointed system of mutual aid that is currently in use.
"These types of things generate conversations like this," he said. "So, while it was certainly a bad thing that day, a good thing came out of it, and we had a lot of people show up today maybe because of that incident and others like it."
Mayor Chilsen encouraged regional leaders to "check their egos at the door."
"This is a give and take type of thing. This is not about me, not about Joe," he said. "It's about the citizens and how can we make this a safer environment for our citizens."
He says it is the first meeting of many to come.
Those at the table on Tuesday afternoon included the City of La Crosse, the City of Onalaska, the Town of Onalaska, the Village of Holmen, the Town of Shelby, the Town of Campbell, the Town of Holland, the City of La Crescent, and the Town of Medary.
No date has been set for the next meeting. It will likely be held in the evening so that more volunteer firefighters get the opportunity to take part.