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Fire chief OK with small staffing cut

Positions would be eliminated as people retire

June 1, 2011

Wauwatosa fire officials are recommending a two-person staffing cut, changes to the management structure and taking a backup ambulance out of service in response to a review of the Fire Department.

For most of the fall, a study of the Fire Department's operations by the International City/County Management Association was met with controversy. When new Chief Rob Ugaste claimed his role, he spent his first two months on the job going over each page of the report with the department's two assistant and four deputy chiefs.

The Fire Department managers presented their response to ICMA's 17 suggestions for improvement during the Budget and Finance Committee meeting Tuesday. Aldermen were generally supportive of the recommended changes, which would save at least $180,000 in employee costs, but they asked to take some time to review the matter.

It's a delicate balance between looking for efficiencies and cost savings and ensuring residents' safety through continued emergency services, Alderman Dennis McBride said.

Changes at Station 2

One point of contention in previous discussions had been the idea of taking a backup ambulance out of service at Fire Station 2, which servees the northern part of the city.

Ugaste, in an interview outside the meeting, said a misconception exists that the ambulance responds to paramedic calls, during which patients can receive life-saving medical services. That's not so, he said. It was operated as a basic ambulance - meaning its primary function was to get patients to the hospital.

The managers came to the conclusion that the department's three paramedic units can handle demand most of the time. Under their proposal, the backup ambulance would be moved to Fire Station 3 off Watertown Plank Road to serve as a "jump company" that could be put into service if needed at a station with a higher staffing level.

Ugaste also wants to change some response policies so one apparatus remains at Fire Station 2 during most calls, available to respond to a second emergency if necessary.

For example, if a call comes in from Mayfair - the southernmost area of the northern coverage zone - command staff will not send two crews from Fire Station 2. Instead, crews from two stations will meet up.

If both crews from Station 2 head out on lengthy, simultaneous calls, an apparatus from Station 3 will move north.

"I have a number of contingencies to make sure service to the Station 2 district is not diminished," he said. "I don't expect any significant changes."

Cuts through attrition

Removing the backup ambulance from Fire Station 2 would allow some personnel changes to occur. Two people - a firefighter and lieutenant - staff the ambulance on three shifts. If a fire call comes in, the two employees move to a fire apparatus to join the three other firefighters on the crew.

The firefighters would be moved to the fire apparatus so it responds with four crew members. One of the lieutenants would be moved to the fire prevention bureau and two lieutenant positions would be eliminated as employees retire.

"We would not be demoting anyone or eliminating anyone's job, it would happen through attrition," Ugaste said. "We're expecting some retirements coming up."

The assistant chiefs are expected to retire within the next year, which could lead to some management restructuring. Ugaste said he anticipates keeping two assistant positions. Meanwhile, the number of deputy chiefs would be reduced to three, and that job position would act as shift commanders with an area of administrative specialization - such as EMS or buildings and equipment.

The idea is to give the captains and lieutenants more of the day-to-day oversight of the crews on their shift, the chief said.

Right now, the department has a deputy chief of fire prevention and an assistant chief that serves as a fire marshal. The study found fault with two people in high-ranking positions dedicating time performing inspections.

Moving forward, one of the assistant chiefs would oversee the fire prevention bureau, the two civilian inspectors already working for the department and possibly a firefighter from each shift. Wauwatosa has a large number of businesses, and to keep up with state requirements many have to be inspected twice a year, Ugaste said.

If the committee, and eventually the entire Common Council, gets on board with the changes, they could start happening this fall. Beyond that, fire officials have asked that other staffing changes wait until the department goes through an accreditation process that will include data analysis.

Alderman Michael Walsh, committee chairman, said it makes sense to base staffing levels on empirical evidence, and he supports going after accreditation.

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