When Salem Lakes Fire/Rescue Chief Mike Slover was hired by the then-Town of Salem 19 years ago to oversee the unenviable task of consolidating the Salem, Trevor and Wilmot fire departments and the Salem Lakes Rescue Squad, he figured he wouldn’t make friends in the process.
He was an outsider, moving here from Florida to make change, and he was “going to make somebody mad.”
“Sometimes these consolidations just don’t work out,” Slover said. “With that assumption, my wife (Joie) and I agreed she should continue to work as a high school teacher and stay in Florida.”
Other local fire and rescue chiefs doubted Slover would succeed.
At a welcome gathering with Kenosha County fire chiefs, then-Somers Fire Chief Steve Krause asked, “’Just what to you think you are going to do?’ and (said), ‘I wish you luck,’” Slover recalls.
“I said, ‘Well, we’re going to give this a try and see how it goes,’” Slover remembers. “I did figure I’d only be here two, three, four years at the most.”
It turned out to be a lot more than that, as Slover will retire this month after 19 years with the department. His last day is June 10.
Not only did Slover succeed at consolidating the local units in the Town of Salem, he and Highway Director Mike Murdock championed the construction of a $10 million Fire and Highway Department building project. Slover also worked to expand coverage to Silver Lake prior to Salem and Silver Lake merging to form the Village of Salem Lakes.
“Nineteen years later, I’m still here, and I feel like I’m going out on a positive note,” Slover said. “And I have met some of the best people during the process.”
Honored for his service
Slover was recently honored for his service at the Salem Lakes Village Board meeting by way of a proclamation.
“Chief Slover has been a constant, stable leader of the Fire Department, never wavering from the integrity, honesty, humor and compassionate philosophy by which he lives day-to-day life, providing his staff with the confidence to never doubt his character and leadership ability,” the proclamation presented by Village President Diann Tesar reads, in part.
The department has planned a retirement ceremony and walk-out for Slover at 5 p.m. on June 10 at Salem Lakes Fire/Rescue Station 1, 11252 254th Ct., in Trevor. Assistant Chief Jim Lejcar has been named interim chief following Slover’s departure while the Fire Commission solidifies the process of finding a permanent replacement.
“I told them not to do anything,” Slover said, choking up with tears just at the thought of it. “I’m not going to be able to get through it.”
Slover said he plans to spend more time with family, finally being in the same state year-round as his wife, who retired from teaching in Florida, and nearer to his grandchildren. He said he will travel and is “gonna go fishing.”
“For 44 years, I’ve been listening to a pager,” Slover said, referencing the years he also spent working for fire departments in Florida. “That sound will be replaced by the sounds of my family.”
Like many, Slover said the COVID-19 pandemic made him realize just how precious time with family is.
“My wife was hospitalized with COVID and my brother died because of it,” Slover said, adding that his wife has recovered. “I was 965 miles away from my family every day. It’s time to make that change. I feel like I owe it to them.”
Four decades as firefighter
Slover said he initially wanted to be a law enforcement officer and joined a volunteer fire department in Ensley, Fla., in May 1977 to see if he could handle the stress of emergency situations.
He walked into the firehouse to inquire, and the fire chief said, “Can you be here tonight?” Slover recalls. That night, they gave him a radio.
“When it goes off, come to the fire station,” were the instructions Slover was given.
“And that night, it went off,” he said. “It scared the heck out of me. It was for a structure fire in our community. It was an abandoned projection booth and concession stand for an old drive-in theater.”
It was literally trial by fire.
“I was hooked from that time on,” Slover said. “I was totally committed to learn as much as I could. I read professional journals and went to school. I was there for 22 years and ended up becoming chief in 1987.”
When Slover started, there were “16 very independent volunteer fire departments” in Escambia County, the westernmost and oldest county in Florida. One of the reasons Slover was hired as emergency services director to oversee consolidation in the Town of Salem was because he had already been through it in Florida. In 1999, Slover was hired as the first fire chief for Escambia County and worked to add full-time firefighters during the day to supplement the volunteer response.
“We ended up putting nine full-time engine companies on during the daytime throughout the county,” Slover said.
While in Florida, he was also a full-time civilian photographer for the United States Navy for 26 years and managed four audio-visual centers as part of his duties.
Coming to Wisconsin
Slover said he learned about the position in Salem from a trade publication and was intrigued. He was somewhat familiar with Wisconsin, because his father was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Base for a period of time while serving in the Navy.
Slover was invited for an interview with the leadership of all the departments within the Town of Salem present and was hired as emergency services director by the Town Board in April 2002.
“There was a roadmap for us,” Slover said of the consolidation process, which was defined by McGrath Consulting. “We didn’t go by it exactly and worked together to suggest changes along the way. We wanted everyone to feel a part of it.”
Slover said the key was to “understand the history of where everybody came from and respect how they became what they were,” with the goal of “embracing a new way of doing things to make ourselves better.”
He’s not sure someone from within the local ranks could’ve led the process.
“I had no ties to anyone, no obligations to anyone,” Slover said.
There were concerns about equity among the stations and if the funding each had built up would be taken away. There was concern about people’s jobs, earned responsibilities and power being stripped.
“Individuals gave up a lot to allow the merger to proceed as it needed to,” Slover said.
For his part, Slover decided to go to paramedic school and obtained his paramedic license in 2003.
“I felt it was important I become a paramedic so they understood I knew what they do, what they’re going through,” he said.
In 2004, after much insight from each department involved, Town of Salem Fire/Recue was established. The patch for the uniforms included the names of all the departments consolidated: Salem Fire, Trevor Fire, Wilmot Fire and Salem Rescue. A hierarchy was established, people applied and were hired to officer positions and Slover stayed on as fire chief.
“We started working hand-in-glove, because we all realized we’re here for the citizens,” Slover said. “It’s not about our egos. It’s about helping people.”
One of the first decisions made was to start having firefighters provide first response for medical emergencies. All members of the department were required to get their firefighter certification within one year and complete emergency medical technician certification within two years after that.
“Within three years everyone, would be a dual-certified provider,” Slover said.
To this day, Slover said the department, now named Salem Lakes Fire/Rescue, is made up of a mix of volunteers, part-time firefighter/EMTs and full-time firefighter/paramedics. Volunteers are paid a stipend per call rather than an hourly rate.
“Our part-timers and our volunteers are the backbone of this department,” Slover said. “They help keep us going.”
Slover said there are a few calls that will stay with him forever, those from fatal crashes and fires.
“There have been a lot of crashes since I’ve been here — a lot of motorcycle accidents and head-on collisions,” he said. “Our rural community has high-speed highways running through it with (highways) 83, 50 and C.”
Slover recalled one especially horrific accident on Highway C involving a car that left the highway and landed upside down in a body of water. Murdock, who is now the highway director and village administrator, dove underwater with a knife to free a child from the vehicle.
“We lost some members of the department after that because they said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Slover said. “I remember one saying, ‘I don’t think I want to do this anymore. Every time I smell a wet towel, I think of that baby.’”
Slover is forever thankful firefighters were not hurt when the roof of an apartment building in Camp Lake collapsed as they were fighting a fire in the attic. They escaped with little time to spare.
“We would have lost some people,” Slover said. “We were lucky that night.”
More recently, separate accidents on Highway 50 that took the lives of three prominent members of the Rizzo family and another a teen from Lake Geneva left an indelible mark on those who responded.
“We certainly will never, ever forget those calls,” Slover said.
Slover said he plans to formally recommend Lejcar to be hired for the permanent position of fire chief. But he understands the need of the Fire Commission to establish a process and determine what the best course of action is to fill the position.
“There is no one more loyal to this community or to this department that I have ever seen,” Slover said.
Regardless of who is chosen, Slover said it should be “someone who comes from a true volunteer background.”
“We want someone who operated within a volunteer, part-time/full-time system,” Slover said.
He also recommends that the Fire Commission consider allowing the substitution of a minimum number of years of service of “command/chief experience” in lieu of college education with a degree in a specific area of function.