On January 19, 2010, a Milwaukee landmark for more than four decades erupted into flames. This fire took the efforts of 150 Milwaukee fire fighters and 30 department vehicles. This four alarm fire prompted the Milwaukee Fire Department to initiate their first-ever MABAS call. MABAS stands for the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System. This brought into Milwaukee fire stations suburban fire departments to staff the empty buildings in the case of additional response needs.
The Pizzaman Restaurant was ultimately a total loss, along with three other businesses and a number of apartments. A final cause of the fire as of this writing has not been officially determined.
The issue that seems to have made more news than the fire is the reaction to the use of mutual aid by various people in the Milwaukee Fire Department and Milwaukee city government.
Milwaukee signed onto to participate in the MABAS system around 2006. Their participation up until this fire had been one of providing aid, never recieving aid. In the 150-year history of the Milwaukee Fire Department, the only significant fire that received aid was in the 1890’s when the Third Ward fire broke out and consumed hundreds of buildings and burned for weeks. The Chicago Fire Department sent pumpers, fire fighters and other equipment on railcars to assist.
Since that fire, there had been little to no assistance requests to outside fire departments.
Fast forward to the current day, and the toll budget cuts have taken. Milwaukee Fire Department experiences rolling “brown outs,” or temporary closure of different companies based on staffing, and the permanent closure of Ladder 10.
This confluence of events has caused David Saeger, IAFF Local 210 president of the Milwaukee Fire Fighters Association to utter some controversial words regarding fire fighting in the Milwaukee suburbs versus the City. Saeger was joined by Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan to call on the City to find a way to restore the staffing.
Where both of these men have made a tactical mistake is in discounting the benefit of MABAS.
The need to have adequate staffing goes without saying. Milwaukee needs to find a way to keep companies in service, end the rolling brown outs, and restore closed companies. As they say in real estate—Location, Location, Location. This is one of the key factors in effective fire fighting and medical responses. The one thing a fire fighter cannot restore is lost time. Properly trained personnel and equipment properly staged throughout a response area or district are all tools that can be effectively used to reduce the affect time has on emergency situations.
One statement that tends to push people away, rather than foster positive working relationships is quoted below:
“With all due respect to the suburban fire departments, some of them are actually part-time firefighters,” Donovan said. “They just do not have the necessary experience and training to the level that the Milwaukee Fire Department does, so that’s a concern as well.”
The next statement drives the wedge deeper:
“It’s blatantly clear that these communities, if called upon, to respond to a working structure fire of any nature within the city of Milwaukee, they would have extreme difficulty,” the letter quotes Seager as saying on Jeff Wagner’s afternoon WTMJ radio show.
And the last statement of unity:
Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan made similar comments in an interview with the Journal Sentinel, saying, “They just do not have the necessary experience and training to the level that the Milwaukee Fire Department does.”
First, the need to understand that all fire fighters are trained to specific levels of knowledge and skills prior to being legally allowed to operate as a fire fighter is not being acknowledged. Milwaukee’s fire fighters and those in suburban departments are all trained and certified to a Level I and Level II.
Second item that needs to be recognized is the fact that many of the instructors at Milwaukee’s Bureau of Instruction and Training are also the same instructors that can be found in any number of the area’s technical colleges as fire instructors. If the suburban fire fighters are trained by the same individuals, possessing the same knowledge, same basic tools, same basic principles of fire suppression, same rules of physics, and the same text books that are internationally recognized as the basic starting point for instruction, with the only exception of the sheer repetition of large response volumes, Saeger and Donovan are impugning their own fire fighters’ skills.
Third item that seems to be ignored in this discussion is the nature of much of the inner ring of suburbs to Milwaukee. The designation of urban versus suburban is a rather nebulous term. If one is referring to crime and such quality of life definitions, then there is a huge difference. If one is referring to a density of heavy industrial development, the line is more grayed in recent years. If the definition of urban has to do with the overall population density per square mile, than many inner ring suburbs are equal to Milwaukee, if not slightly higher.
The inner ring suburbs have roughly the same age of housing stock, similar periods of expansion and development, and thus similar construction methods. The fire fighting methods between any department in the country differs according to the department’s policy. But these policies are guided by the type of construction. The suburbs and Milwaukee are similar in these operational differences.
The fourth item that is ignored by Saeger and Donovan, whether accidental or intentional, is the issue of the fire apparatus. Saeger and Donovan question why there was no general recall of the Milwaukee Fire Department’s off-duty personnel. They use the argument as a reason to not call in the MABAS departments. The City of Milwaukee has roughly 40 engines and 15 ladders. At this fire, half of the department’s stations were empty, which roughly translates to half the front line apparatus being called to this one fire.
If the general recall is issued, how do these recalled fire fighters fight a fire? What fire apparatus do they use? What ladders are they bringing to the scene? How is the motoring public properly alerted to the responding emergency vehicle?
The only option is for the recalled off-duty members to utilize their personal vehicles loaded with spare equipment. And fire fighters do not routinely have a functional pumper for their personal vehicle, so an effective pumper is not present for the fire fight.
The initiating of the MABAS response seems to be a practical and responsible thing to do to protect the citizens of Milwaukee. This brings in personnel as well as vehicles needed to fight a fire.
Saeger has mentioned that the suburban departments do not have compatible equipment for Milwaukee. This statement is partially correct. This incompatible equipment is not due to a deficiency among the suburban departments, but rather Milwaukee deviating from national standards in some cases to correct persistent tampering. The normal process of notifying mutual aid companies of a specific deviation is the responsibility of that department making a change.
Donovan complained about radios not being functional. Mr. Donovan should also realize that the majority of the State of Wisconsin is capable of communicating one department to another, with the exception of Milwaukee. Again, the deficiency is not necessarily with the MABAS departments, but rather Milwaukee. The City of Milwaukee has spent millions of dollars on a radio system that will not be compatible with any other department in the State of Wisconsin when completed, which the fire department hopes to utilize. If Mr. Donovan’s claims of concern for the safety of Milwaukee’s citizens, and that MABAS is for catastrophic events, he is missing the critical importance of compatible communications systems. If MABAS departments cannot communicate with Milwaukee, then how has Mr. Donovan served his constituents?
When the communications issue was first noticed early on during the MABAS response, Wauwatosa Assistant Fire Chief William Rice came into Milwaukee’s dispatch center with radios to work around the situation. Claims of dysfunction within the MABAS system are unfounded.
The final issue that should be recognized is the City of Chicago. If, as the claim is made that the suburban fire departments are incapable of urban fire fighting, then why has the City of Chicago been actively utilizing it since early on in the development of Mutual Aid Box Alarm System responses? The claims of Saeger and Donovan are unfounded. If the system is flawed to the degree claimed by Saeger and Donovan, then Chicago, a significantly larger department, would surely have noted issues with the arrangement.
So, the suggestion to correct the problems raised is not name calling and negative comments, rather solutions.
To that end, while restoring staffing and companies is a long-term goal, in the short-term, utilize MABAS companies. Even after restoration of staffing and companies, realizing the lack of equipment is the safety concern on larger alarms, it is corrected, again, by MABAS companies.
If there is a disparity with non-standard equipment, create a series of adapter bags, one for each station where there is a need. In-coming MABAS companies retrieve this bag and are now able to function. Beyond this point, whenever a large-scale purchase of new equipment is considered, review what the prevailing national standard is, consult with the State of Wisconsin’s fire departments to see where everyone is operating. Being a big fish in a pond only means you are a big fish, and are not exempt from the rules of the pond.
If the tactics, response area knowledge and other general local idiosyncrasies are so serious that only Milwaukee personnel can safely operate, then have a general recall of off-duty staff in addition to the MABAS request. The recalled personnel still need a truck or engine to ride to handle the fire. In essence, instead of a four person company, it would be an eight person company. If insufficient personnel is an argument for why things are unsafe, eight fire fighters on one rig would rival any fire department’s staffing, and enhance everyone’s safety.
The communication issue is one that will be a constant struggle, as the technology is in a constant state of evolution. If a national standard is adopted, and a single comprehensive strategy for interoperable communications is set in place, there will be no problem. In the future, Milwaukee needs to be an equal player at the discussion table for any regional plans. Their needs are stated, and the solution that is developed is one that covers them and the rest of the area. The historical practice of the biggest department dictating what happens to the rest of the departments is out-dated and dangerous, and needs to be avoided.
If Los Angeles City and County, Chicago and its suburbs, and many other large metropolitan areas can work together to gain efficiencies and interoperability, so too, can Milwaukee.
Irresponsible comments that are degrading, in an effort to fight a seriously challenged battle, cannot be tolerated. Comments about another fire department’s perceived abilities cannot be voiced over the airwaves. It is unprofessional and only makes the commentator and the organization they represent appear to be less competent than they really are.
The lesson for all areas of the country is to ensure that the emergency response departments are all working together. The old concept of parochial responses and boundaries has been gradually phased out. The national and state emergency response plans now require interoperability and mutual aid agreements. Failing to have these simple concepts in place tends to reduce a department’s likelihood of receiving federal money for emergency equipment, staffing, and planning.
Strong citizen advocacy for safe, modern, professional, and national-standard compliant emergency response departments is key to protecting a home, business, and community. Failing to speak up means you get what you get.
Through out Wisconsin, fire, police, and EMS departments are all working together while facing budget problems. Milwaukee is no different on the budget stress. What is done to minimize its impact is what is in question.
The acting interim Fire Chief for Milwaukee, Michael Jones is aware of the concerns and problems. He has expressed an intent to work to correct them. What he needs now is support from the citizens of Milwaukee, and the fire fighters he leads.
Advocate for a strong and efficient fire response that utilizes the best proven practices and meets national standards. Help the fire fighters protect you.
Stay fire safe, and thanks for reading.
For more info: article link article link MABAS Wisconsin