Milwaukee Fire Department stretched thin with 25% increase in building fires this winter

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- It's been a rough winter for Milwaukee firefighters.

They've had to tackle 25 percent more building fires this winter than last.

The acting chief said that's taking a toll on his staff.

The increase in building fires occurred during a stretch of brutal weather.

Add a pandemic and budgets that have declined for years into the mix, and the acting chief said it's tiring.

"They're questioning themselves more than I've ever seen before," said Acting Fire Chief Aaron Lipski.

He said this winter has been brutal.

"It's extremely wearing on the body to be out there working," said Lipski.

The department has seen a 25 percent increase in building fires this winter, and earlier this year responded to a string of fatalities.

"The repetition of it all, we've certainly had the horrible fortune of a number of fatalities very early in the year," said Lipski.

He said that weighs on the firefighters. COVID forced it to pause its door-to-door fire prevention efforts, and the department's staffing has been declining for years.

"We were necessarily trimming fat in the early years of the past decade and a half," said Lipski.

"For the last five years we've either lost fire stations and that means a decrease in our personnel," said 11th District Alderman Mark Borkowski.

He has not supported cutting the fire department's budget. In 2007, the department had 1,152 authorized positions, that's down to 860.

"At a certain stage, when is cutting too much, too much," said Borkowski.

The Milwaukee Common Council approved a $7 million increase for the fire department in 2021, but it doesn't include more staffing, much of that is marked for benefits.

The fire department made a hard push for smoke detectors following the string of fatalities early this year.

Lipski said the effort was successful and plans to release more details later this week.

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