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Published: 12/14/2008

Toledo fire chief aims to improve efficiency

BY LAREN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Even before Mike Wolever was named Toledo's fire chief, he started making changes in preparation for operating the department with fewer people on a tighter budget.

He knew he would have to change the way the department operated as the ranks shrunk and the city struggled financially.

"We have developed a very lean structure, and where we are right now allows us to operate at near-maximum efficiency," Chief Wolever said.

The chief, who was appointed to the position in November, 2007, said he has spent much of his time finding ways to cut costs and, at the same time, improve efficiency.

"The work is not going away, and the city is not getting any smaller geographically," he said.

Chief Wolever and his other top commanders have tried several times in recent weeks to convince Toledo City Council members of the need to hire new firefighters next year.

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner announced last month that the city would hire no new police officers or firefighters for 2009 to save about $5.3 million toward the needed $21 million in cutbacks built into next year's general operating budget.

Chief Wolever said that without more firefighters, overtime costs are estimated to be about $4.1 million in 2009 and could jump to $6 million in 2010 as a result of the department's minimum staffing requirement, which calls for at least 103 firefighters to be on duty at any time.

If 40 new recruits are hired next year, 10 of whom are already trained firefighters, Chief Wolever said the overtime savings would be realized in 2010, when costs would drop to about $800,000.

"I would like to see the overtime dollars translated into hiring and training," the chief said. "Then, the overtime costs get smaller and smaller."

The number of firefighters has declined steadily since 2003, from 521 to the current 479.

In an effort to deal with those reductions, Chief Wolever has decreased the number of staff positions and put those people back on the street, responding to fire and medical runs.

Additionally, the chief has tried to reduce fuel costs by requiring firefighters to decrease the amount of time their fire engines are idling.

And in an effort to prevent vacant structure fires - which have been on the rise since 2005 - Chief Wolever has firefighters drive through neighborhoods on their way back from a run to identify any structures that need to be secured.

"Our goal is to prevent fires as much as possible. If they see something that yesterday was boarded up and today isn't, someone is going in and out of that," he said. They then notify the city's division of neighborhoods of the structures that need to be boarded up, he added.

Chief Wolever also has tried to conserve fuel is by reducing the number of fire apparatuses initially sent to structure fires.

Members of the department determined that initially dispatching fewer crews to fires has not had a negative impact on the safety of residents or firefighters.

Rather than sending 22 to 30 people to a fire, Chief Wolever said about 14 firefighters are dispatched.

The initial responders assess the scene and determine if more crews are needed.

"We were going to an awful lot of fires where the first couple of companies were able to contain the fire and we had all these other people coming at the same time," Chief Wolever said. "It really didn't make a lot of sense."

Assistant Chief Luis Santiago said one of Chief Wolever's strongest attributes is his ability to think "outside of the box."

"He doesn't limit himself to the history of the way things are done," Assistant Chief Santiago said. "He's always looking at a different way of doing things."

The assistant chief also said Chief Wolever has gained the respect of his colleagues by allowing them to do their jobs. "I don't think micro-management is a part of his way of doing things," he said. "People sense that he's trusting them to do a job."

Former Chief Mike Bell, who was named Ohio's state fire marshal in April, 2007, said Chief Wolever is dedicated to improving the department.

"He shoots for perfection. He also wants to make sure people are shooting for that same standard," Mr. Bell said. "He sets the bar high so even if they fail, they'll be better off than when they started."

Chief Wolever joined the fire department in 1978 and was promoted to battalion chief 10 years later. He became deputy chief and assistant chief in 2002 and acting chief after Mr. Bell retired.

The chief has led local homeland-security efforts and the department's dive team and has been involved in emergency planning at the local, state, and federal levels.

Contact Laren Weber at:

lweber@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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