Chief Battles Consultants Over Cuts in Milwaukee
Wounds of 1965 were reopened in 1972 when the City of Milwaukee hired the consulting firm of GageBabcock & Associates to update its earlier study of the fire department. In his fight against sweeping cuts in manpower and equipment recommended by Gage-Babcock, Milwaukee Fire Chief William Stamm may be setting a unique and useful precedent among the major cities.
Milwaukee first hired Gage-Babcock 10 years previously. It was then alleged by some, though since denied, that the consultants were under mandate to cut the city’s costs. It was considered common knowledge in 1964 that the objective was a way of getting the 56-hour week fire fighters were seeking without increasing the department budget. Public hearings later indicated that the city would grant the reduced hours only if the consultant’s study promised offsetting savings.
The final 1963 report of that study proposed a three-stage slash in MFD units, closing 11 firehouses, eliminating 14 of 34 engine companies, going from nine battalions to six, and replacing “lost” manpower with a new sixman manpower squad in each battalion. This was to save $937,000 annually, although it would have required a $1 million capital investment in relocated stations.
A long and bitter struggle ensued. Eventually, Fire Chief James Moher (Stamm’s predecessor who retired in 1970) accepted a compromise leaving the city with seven battalions, no manpower squads, a net loss of three stations, and a reduction of six companies (two of them since restored under pressure of suburban growth). His men got the 56-hour week. That was in May of 1965.
In the latest report following the 1972-3 update, Gage-Babcock didn’t mention manpower squads. But the firm again urged major reductions—a net decrease of nine stations, 10 engines, one battalion, and 162 men. Savings this time would be $1.95 million a year and the capital investment, $3.44 million.
There were two big differences in the controversies arising from the 1963 and 1972 reports.
Consultant study rebutted
In the first place, the fire chief was able to use seven years of experience under the 1965 compromise plan to show the effect of the original cuts. In so doing, Stamm and his top aides produced their own “1973 Fire Defense Evaluation” report which point by point rebuts the latest GageBabcock study.
Far from accepting fewer units, this rebuttal urges three new engine companies, two more rescue squads, a second fire fighting deputy chief, and the return of the fire prevention bureau, which was transferred to the City Building Inspection Department several years ago.
Stamm charged that adoption of the consultant’s plan would constitute an “an intolerable public risk,” pointing out that department research shows the 1965 changes “have eroded the fire defenses of our city, have increased the number of lives lost, have increased the amount of property lost, have increased the accident rate for fire fighters … and have caused an uneasy public reaction concerning the safety of lives and property.”
In the second place, in both this new report and in discussing the chiefs rebuttal, Gage-Babcock’s comments betrayed what local fire officials consider serious misunderstanding of the fire service—even hostility towards it. Those comments also appear to raise some questions about the consultants’ concern for the safety of Milwaukee’s citizens compared to the welfare of their own business.
Chief answers questions
We asked Chief Stamm about this controversy, and our questions following along with his replies:
Briefly, how does Milwaukee’s actual fire experience compare before and since the 1965 Gage-Babcock recommendations were adopted in part?
“We looked at the seven years before 1965, and the seven years since. During that time, while city population dropped .3 percent, fire deaths for the average year after 1965 were up 25 percent from the average year before 1965; annual dollar loss was up 68 percent.
“Gage-Babcock says we haven’t ‘proved’ their recommendations caused the figures to do that. Yet they themselves state that ‘evaluation of the fire protection provided by different schemes is almost entirely subjective because no methods have been developed to quantitatively measure the variation between different plans.’ We are entitled to draw conclusions from the data that appear reasonable to us, then, just as they are.
“They claim that since we say fire fighter injury rates are up because of fewer companies, spread further apart, we ought to show a very high injury rate in the fringe areas where the spread is even thinner. This is ridiculous because it is where the fires are frequent, or more serious, that the absence of units makes itself felt. If we have a fairly constant number of fires annually in a given city area, but fewer engines to respond, the remaining men serving that area obviously must work longer, harder hours and endure greater fatigue; hence, more injuries.”
Speaking of injuries, Gage-Babcock has said that if the injury rate is increasing they suspect “it is due to the lack of a safety program within the fire department.” What would you say to that?
“This statement proves that GageBabcock did very little or no investigation into our safety program. We have the most comprehensive safety program of any department in the city— and necessarily so. With GageBabcock’s limited knowledge of the fire service, obviously they fail to understand that we have to have built-in safety features in everything we do.”
Gage-Babcock has stated, “As we attempted to point out in our report, the effect of a fire department on life safety is minimal.” Chief Stamm, what is your comment on that?
“We are now collecting figures on the number of people we rescue from fire situations. I think it will prove substantial. However, we don’t need to play a numbers game. If we could establish the saving of one person’s life because of timely response by one fire company, and that one person happened to be you, I guarantee you wouldn’t consider the effect ‘minimal.’
“Now, Gage-Babcock says we should stop sending a full assignment to boxes in high false alarm areas. As long as I am chief, we will continue to put in all companies because they are all radio-equipped and can be back in service immediately. During one month in 1973, we had two inner core area boxes pulled which everybody thought would be false. But one of them went to a fifth alarm and the other to a second with life hazard in both cases. In the latter instance, only prompt arrival of the full first-alarm assignment assured rescue of all the building’s occupants.
“Here’s another example. In February 1970, we had a dwelling fire from which a family of five were brought out by our men who responded from stations as close as five blocks away. One person died, the others were saved, though near death, because we got them out in time, then used medical techniques just learned here by some of the companies. This was widely publicized—a photo at the scene appeared on page 54 of the June 1973 Fire Engineering. I’m sure this family didn’t consider our department’s role ‘minimal.’”
Chief, what about economics? Did Gage-Babcock allow for increased insurance rates which could result from major fire force reduction?
“The consultant’s 1972 report concedes the city could drop from Class 2 to Class 3. They claim the single family or duplex residence would not be affected. However, they admit that commercial building rates would rise from 1 to 6 percent, depending on the building type. They say it’s not feasible to put a total dollar figure on this because there are too many different buildings in the city to consider.
“Unfortunately, we have to consider those buildings, even if Gage-Babcock does not. We are responsible to the ratepayers.
“The ISO, of course, has made no commitment. But some local insurance people have confirmed to their clients that a rate increase is certain if fire service cuts are made as proposed.”
What about the growing problem of simultaneous fires?
“In 1964, we had only 1090 instances of this. By 1972 there were four times as many. The latest case was December 2,1972, when we had a serious downtown fourth alarm, a second alarm on the north side, plus a working first alarm in the far northwest, all at the same time. There were 13 first-line engines in service, which is not the coverage we’d like, of course. But under the Gage-Babcock proposal we would have had only three. Some even worse examples could be given from recent years.
“Gage-Babcock says we can use ladder trucks as engine companies by putting booster tanks on them. What do we do when those tanks run dry? ‘Recall the off-shift,’ they say. We do this already, but it takes time to get those men in service. Fire won’t wait.
“Finally, the consultant says we can get suburban help just by asking for it. We do have aid agreements with a few communities. But we cannot, as GageBabcock says, get anything like 15 fully manned engine companies that way. We have no aid agreements with most of the suburbs, and it’s not my prerogative to put such agreements into effect on my own.
“We can’t have the kind of setup here that exists around Boston, for example. Most of our suburbs have volunteer units, not trained to work with us or in the city, nor is it certain they would be fully manned.”
Closing of stations
What about the consultant’s claim in 1963 and again in 1972 that many stations needed closing or relocating because their sites were all picked back in the horse-drawn era?
“That’s just not true. We have some fire stations of that age, of course. But many others have been closed or relocated over the years as a result of our own studies. Of the 27 land engine company quarters existing prior to full motorization in 1928, 13 were abandoned for new locations better suited to a changing community without any consultant’s recommendations. One unit involved, Engine 9, has . been moved twice in 20 years.
“Right now, only half a dozen Milwaukee companies occupy the same sites they did 60 years ago, and GageBabcock proposed changes for only two of them. We have almost half our engines in locations where fire stations didn’t exist a quarter of a century ago.
“Our research can tell us where the ‘ideal’ station site is, but it isn’t always practical to change locations only a few blocks. And we feel we know more about local street and traffic patterns, hazard distribution and company responses than an outside consultant may gather from brief observation, observation.”
Lack of understanding
Chief, can you cite examples of some other ways Gage-Babcock seemed to lack understanding of local fire fighting operations?
“First of all, even back in 1963 their report called for a reduction in engine companies because greater alarm records showed that many engines never pumped at big fires. They assumed such units were there only as manpower carriers. Of course this is false, because most such engines served to lay lines from other engines at hydrants at a big saving in both time and manpower.
“Today, they contend we make only ‘limited’ use of 3 1/2-inch hose and then generally in conjunction with the fireboat. Our use of such hose at major fires is increasing all the time, and on several recent occasions we have laid out 3000 to 5000 feet of it at a single fire to feed heavy streams or boost the supply to certain engines. Often the fireboat isn’t there because the fire is far from the riverfront.
Recall takes time
“Next, the consultant says we can get added manpower at large fires, as I mentioned earlier, by off-shift recall, claiming this works ‘as well or better’ than transferring first-line companies from elsewhere. This is nonsense because it can take an hour or more to put an off-duty company into action.
“Finally, he says, ‘In fire fighting it is seldom required that a man take an unnecessary risk.’ In my opinion, that statement proves the apparent total ignorance of the consultant regarding the fire service. Every time a rig rolls out the door, every man on it is taking an unnecessary risk. Every time a man gropes through smoke-filled rooms to find a missing child who later turns up safe outside, he takes an unnecessary risk.
“To add insult to injury, the consultant threw in the uncalled-for comment that ‘on some occasions, major fire fighting efforts are being put forth merely to avoid criticism by the public . . . certain fires are fought for the benefit of the television cameras.’”
What would you say about the “professional” status of the consultant after that last quote?
“The firm admitted that the remark did not refer to Milwaukee, so it’s hard for me to say what place it had in the report about our city. In any case, Gage-Babcock has told the Milwaukee Common Council that its method of analysis ‘is as objective as the state of the art permits.’ But it hardly reveals objectivity to imply that my department, or any other, is playing to the grandstand.
“What we all have to remember is that an outside consulting firm has no legal obligation to the city or any of its citizens once its study is completed. It can go about its business. But we are responsible and must live with the results.
“As further indication of its seeming concern more for its own affairs elsewhere than for the best interests of Milwaukeeans, consider this statement from the consultant’s reply to our 1973 evaluation: ‘It is unfortunate that both the fire department and the union chose to attack our report . . . by making well-publicized, libelous statements which are likely to have serious repercussions on our reputation and our ability to secure future business.’
“I am at a loss to appreciate what relationship this statement has to the purpose of the survey—except to show that they cannot afford to have their reports challenged.”
Chief, would you sum up your position on this whole matter?
“We may be the first fire department to challenge Gage-Babcock with a report based strictly on experience, facts, and statistics, and 100 percent with the welfare of the taxpayer in mind. I am fully convinced that the city needs the standard of fire protection as indicated in my report.
“We are very mindful of the fiscal crisis confronting our city officials and taxpayers, but we cannot ignore the importance of protecting lives, property and jobs in the city. Ironically, Gage-Babcock recognized the lack of adequate protection in the newly developing outlying areas. However, they proposed to meet that need by taking a degree of fire protection from other sections of the city, giving that part of the force to the new sections. To staff schools in new sections of the city, do we close schools in an older area? It is just as ridiculous to do this with the fire defenses. All citizens are entitled to the same standard of protection.
High priority urged
“Fire protection is a basic service in all large cities and must have a high priority in the allocation of available funds. The budgetary impact of the fire department’s recommendations is only pennies on the tax rate, a small price to pay considering the risks involved.
“The consultants claim their report is based on criteria set forth by nationally recognized organizations. We claim that our report is also based on the same criteria. One has to be wrong. Now it’s a matter of proving which one is right.
”A final decision has not yet been made by our city. But it is hoped that our experience, as the only major city faced with two Gage-Babcock surveys in a decade, may be of some value to fire chiefs elsewhere who may become faced with similar problems.”