New Wauwatosa Fire Chief Rob Ugaste envisions a day when the Fire Department can be leaner in ranking officers, yet more responsive.
That will happen, he says, when better communications and cross-training between area fire departments allows for a battalion chief or deputy chief from West Allis or Brookfield to respond first to a fire or other emergency in Tosa, or vice versa, and take command.
"But we aren't there yet," Ugaste told the Employee Relations Committee of the Common Council on Tuesday. "Until we are, and it will be awhile, we need to have special individuals in those roles."
Ugaste was asking the committee to do away with Wauwatosa's rather arcane residency rules for officers of rank in the Fire Department, which require the chief, assistant chiefs and deputy chiefs to live in Tosa or within three miles of its borders.
Ultimately, the committee agreed with Ugaste and passed on a recommendation to the full council, 4-1, with Ald. Jill Organ voting "no," to do away with the residency requirement for those ranks.
Ugaste said that to promote from within the department, "some of our best candidates ruled out if they can't justify the move" either financially or for family reasons.
Ugaste said that for a talented younger firefighter, the residency rule could have drastic consequences if he or she refused a promotion rather than being forced to sell a home and move. "If we don't offer him this opportunity, it has repurcussions for his entire career," Ugaste said.
On the five-member committee, only Organ disagreed, saying she favored residency rules overall and believed that anyone promoted to rank ought to be able to afford to move into the city, especially with lower home prices in the current market.
Ugaste countered that anyone selling now would get less for his or her home in that market, so it would be a wash.
Ugaste also pointed out that West Allis and Brookfield had done away with residency requirements for all officers below their chiefs, and that the Wauwatosa Police Department also has no residency rule for those under the chief. The same is also true of other city employees except for department heads, and some of those have been exempted.
"When we pull up on a scene, you don't expect us to do adequately," Ugaste said. "You expect us to do excellently. We need to be able to hire excellence and not discourage it."