Alderman calls for overhaul of Milwaukee Fire Department
A Milwaukee alderman called Thursday for studying a major overhaul of the city's Fire Department, including the prospects for hiring private companies to deliver both emergency medical service and fire service, or consolidating operations with the suburbs and county.
"We're living with a 1970s solution for how we provide fire protection," Ald. Terry Witkowski said at a City Hall news conference, referring to the time when emergency medical service was transferred from the Police Department to the Fire Department. He said the city needs to find a way to provide "the same level of service, the same degree of safety, but at lower cost."
The idea is likely to face opposition from the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Association, which has repeatedly battled attempts to trim firefighter staffing.
Asked whether he had discussed the study with the firefighters' union, Witkowski said he had learned the quickest way to kill one of your own ideas was to "go to the enemy first."
Witkowski and Aldermen Robert Puente and Ashanti Hamilton, who joined him at the news conference, later said they did not consider the union to be their enemy, but that their responsibility to manage the city in taxpayers' interests differed from the union's responsibility to represent its members' interests. They also said they were not seeking to punish the union for supporting Republican Gov. Scott Walker in his successful campaign against Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett, or for pushing a bill in the Legislature to lift city residency rules for firefighters and police officers.
Over the past 40 years, emergency medical service has grown to 80% of the Fire Department's calls, while the number of fires has dropped to 36 major blazes and about 5,000 building fire-related calls a year, Witkowski noted. He questioned whether the city's four ambulance companies could provide the same emergency medical service at lower cost.
Witkowski said his move was prompted by Walker's 2011-'13 state budget, which would cut state aid to local governments and place tight limits on property tax increases.
Walker has said local governments could compensate for the cuts by raising employee benefit contributions, as provided in his budget-repair legislation. But as Witkowski noted, that measure excludes union-represented police and firefighters, who account for some two-thirds of the city's costs. Court challenges have put the law on hold, and the city attorney's office has questioned whether it can legally apply to the city pension fund.