If the drama surrounding the exit of Clinton’s fire chief seems oddly familiar, that’s because it is.
Two years ago, Edgerton also experienced a leadership shakeup with three chiefs departing in quick succession.
Our biggest concern isn’t the official reason for each chief’s departure but the broader, underlying problems plaguing rural fire departments throughout the state. Towns and villages will likely continue losing good leaders until they figure out how to retain and attract more volunteers—the men and women who extinguish blazes when called to homes and buildings.
The Clinton Fire Department has temporarily filled its chief post by turning to town of Beloit Fire Chief Gene Wright. He will replace interim Chief Jeff London, who replaced longtime Chief John Rindfleisch.
That Clinton is the second Rock County municipality to struggle mightily to find a quality leader is alarming. Both Clinton’s and Edgerton’s cases act as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, signaling that rural fire departments may be near their breaking points without additional financial and personnel support.
Most people don’t appreciate their fire departments until they have a problem and call 911. We hope it doesn’t take a prolonged response to a 911 call—or a tragic death—for officials and residents alike to realize they must work together to make their departments stronger.
They should seek to avoid blaming each other and recognize the state government should also help solve the rural fire department problem.
As we’ve stated in a previous editorial, a legislative committee has studied challenges facing rural fire departments and made recommendations targeting volunteer departments in 2016. Those recommendations include:
Extending the length of some training certifications from two to four years.
Increasing contributions to volunteers’ retirement accounts and lowering the required number of years, from 20 to 15, to become fully vested.
Giving tax credits to volunteers both for their time at work and in training and for non-reimbursable expenses.
The biggest problem facing most rural fire departments is they’re losing volunteers and cannot easily fill leadership vacancies. For the Clinton Fire Department to call on the town of Beloit for assistance speaks to the thinness of the department’s ranks.
Wright said he’s focused on getting the “membership of the department ready for the future,” and that’s a good thing, but he has a difficult task without reforms to assist rural departments.
Infighting among Clinton officials, and previously in Edgerton, hasn’t helped the situation, either. Officials are pointing fingers over a problem that isn’t—to a great degree—their own creation. Demographics and lifestyle changes have conspired against the rural fire department, and political squabbling promises to make matters only worse.
We hope Clinton’s situation calms down over the next several months, but these types of conflicts will likely continue to play out until political leaders unify to address trends and challenges hampering rural departments.