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Wisconsin Emergency Personnel Balk at Reorganization Plan

The quaint image of the volunteer fire department is being blown apart in Mequon, Wis., where an outsider who was hired as chief is taking aim at a department he says has one supervisor for every 1.8 subordinates and where the cost of responding to an emergency call is several times higher than in other communities.

Many of the 50 members of the Mequon Fire Department -- who are paid by the hour for emergencies they respond to -- are upset by what Fire Chief David Bialk describes as the department's first reorganization in 38 years.

"Change is never easy," said Bialk, who unveiled his proposals this week, many of which he plans to impose Oct. 1.

The Mequon Fire Department Organization, which represents the department's members, on Wednesday issued a statement calling for a delay in the changes.

"The chief's plan will decimate the department command staff, it will result in a loss of experienced personnel and will negatively impact public safety," the statement says.

Bialk was the fire chief in Hales Corners when Mequon hired him last summer to replace Jim Wucherer, who had resigned amid scandal.

Wucherer was sentenced to one year in jail for gambling-induced thefts of $40,000 from the city, the Mequon Fire Department Organization and a Hurricane Katrina charity.

Bialk said he did a comprehensive review of the department and found a number of things he wants to change:

On average, according to a study Bialk did, 16 Mequon emergency medical technicians respond to an emergency call, for an average cost of $344. They travel to the fire station and then as many as needed go to the scene.

Bialk surveyed nine other nonfull-time fire departments in the area. In seven of them, three EMTs respond to each emergency call. The average cost is less than $60.

Bialk said the 50-member Mequon Fire Department has one supervisor for every 1.8 subordinates. There are 18 supervisors, including lieutenants, captains, deputy chiefs and an assistant chief.

Given that Bialk is the department's only full-time employee and all members are paid the same hourly rate, flattening the hierarchy alone won't save money.

But Bialk said his plan to reduce the number of supervisors to achieve a ratio of one supervisor for every four subordinates is in line with other departments and would streamline communication.

The department has about 40 firefighter-EMTs and about 10 members who are firefighters only. Any of the 40 firefighter-EMTs can respond to any emergency call, and any of the 50 members can respond to a fire call.

Bialk said he plans to implement a schedule to manage the number of personnel who respond to each call.

In addition, he wants to change the pay -- currently $21.50 an hour -- so that Fire Department members are paid for each quarter-hour they work beyond the first hour. Currently, they are paid for a full hour even if they work only a portion of an hour.

Jim Wienser, president of the Mequon Fire Department Organization, declined comment beyond the statement issued by the organization.

Aside from asking the city to delay the restructuring, the organization said it appears Bialk made "erroneous conclusions" based on "missing and faulty data."

"The level of response citizens have become accustomed to will be in jeopardy with no cost savings to the city," the statement adds.

Bialk said that he would reallocate any savings that result from his changes for other purposes, such as more training, rather than returning money to the city.

Bialk also said that although he believes he can implement the changes on his own authority except for the proposed creation of a "first responder" program that would require Common Council approval for two new vehicles, he would present his plans to the council's Public Safety Committee.

To see more of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to www.jsonline.com. Copyright (c) 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email tmsreprints@permissionsgroup.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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