History of the West Allis Fire Department
The West Allis Fire Department was organized in 1906, in the wake of the rapid expansion of the Allis-Chalmers Corporation, and the organization of the city. The department began as a group of volunteers, borrowing horses from local residents, to move their chemical wagon and hand-pumper to the scene of an alarm. The "call-to-arms" was signaled by the Allis-Chalmers whistle, and responders used wooden fireplugs and cisterns as their water sources. The department remained strictly volunteer until 1922, when five full-time "firemen" were hired to maintain the department's equipment and get it to the scene of an emergency. The city began to use a "call-man" system, which was similar to many of the "paid-on-call" departments currently in use.
In 1925, the West Allis Fire Department became completely full-time. "Firemen" were required to work three 24-hour shifts to receive one full day off. They could not leave the city without permission from the Chief and only a limited number were given that privilege. The department occupied a single station at the intersection of S 73rd Street and W National Avenue. By this time, the department no longer relied upon local horses but maintained five various types of fire apparatus, two of which had inflatable tires.
The department moved one block to the west in 1930, to make way for the construction of the new police department headquarters. In 1998, the police moved to a new station on the city's west end, but Engine 1 and Med 1 continue to provide service from the fire department's former headquarters.
In 1954, the City of West Allis annexed land to the west from the town of Wauwatosa, and south from the town of Greenfield. The annexations doubled the city's size, and required the expansion of the fire department. Over the next few years, the city built two more fire stations and increased staffing to nearly 150 members. The City was thriving with industry, new homes and one of the lowest tax rates in the state. But over the course of time, the profile of the city began to change, and so did the appearance of the fire department. Fortunately, the consistent, cooperative efforts of fire department administrators, union officials, local politicians, and businesses have helped keep the department proficient.
Advancements in prehospital medical care prompted department, local and Milwaukee County officials to train West Allis firefighters to staff the first paramedic unit in the county in 1973. In 1985, West Allis opened the state's first "Survive Alive" house to teach fire safety techniques to local school children. The house has provided a formal instructional setting for over 30,000 students and has been a model for similar houses throughout Wisconsin. In recognition of the city's major transportation routes, the department organized level B hazardous materials training for all members. A training site was developed for confined space instruction, and a "special hazards team" was formed to provide advanced techniques at haz-mat, ice rescue, high-angle rescue and confined space emergencies.
From 2005 to 2011, the department contracted with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to provide deep tunnel rescue services. Fifty-five firefighters were trained in sophisticated breathing equipment and specialized tools to enable them to function more than 300 feet underground and up to seven miles from their entry point for periods up to four hours. With the completion of MMSD's tunnel construction project, these firefighters returned to their former Technical Rescue Team roles.
Firefighters have found that public relations, good political relationships and the assistance of local businesses have been beneficial. Over the years, fundraising efforts by department and union members have provided residents with the services of the city’s first:
- CPR courses
- Local wheel-chair ramps
- Paramedic vehicle
- Semiautomatic defibrillators
- The Survive Alive program
Firefighters have made substantial contributions to the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Child Abuse Prevention Fund among other groups.
The fire department trains its own members, provides city fire inspections and operates its own maintenance bureau. Department members conduct numerous fire safety, juvenile and senior safety, industrial and health programs annually. New programs are continuously being developed to adapt to the changing needs of the community.
The West Allis Fire Department Today
West Allis firefighters currently protect an area of 11.4 square miles, housing 59,652 residents; more than twice the population of 1954. Since the department’s expansion in that year, annual calls for service have increased by more than 240% while overall staffing has decreased by approximately 30%. The West Allis Fire Department answered more than 10,000 calls for service in 2019. In order to provide an effective response to an ever-increasing number of incidents with a steadily decreasing workforce, the West Allis Fire Department maintains intergovernmental agreements with neighboring agencies to provide/receive automatic aid.