Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski received unanimous and enthusiastic support from the Fire and Police Commission as it awarded him his first full, four-year term Thursday.
Ever since taking command of the Milwaukee Fire Department following the retirement of his predecessor in the fall of 2020, Lipski has earned widespread support from public officials, community members and healthcare professionals alike.
“You’re a leader,” Ed Fallone, the chair of the commission, said. “You’re always demonstrating creativity in solving problems.”
There was hardly any doubt Lipski would earn the four-year term. He was the sole candidate considered for the position and was peppered with positive feedback from commissioners as they launched the reappointment process in early March.
Lipski thanked his family and a range of public officials before thanking his own staff Thursday.
“To be put in this position is not something I really ever believed was going to happen, so I’m grateful and I’m humbled,” he said. “We have an incredible Fire Department that everyone should be proud of. They have taken on the mantle of COVID, civil unrest, decreasing resources, increasing demand on our service. They keep going. It is a thing of beauty to watch these men and women work.”
Lipski is a Milwaukee native who followed a long line of family firefighters when he joined the Fire Department in 1997. He served as an assistant chief for about a year and a half before taking over as acting chief in October 2020. In May 2021, the commission appointed Lipski to serve the remainder of Rohlfing’s term.
At that time, a range of Milwaukee institutions voiced support for Lipski as the permanent chief, including then-Mayor Tom Barrett, WEC Energy Group, Advocate Aurora Health, Community Advocates, Legal Aid Society, the Milwaukee Tobacco-Free Alliance and two professional firefighter associations in Milwaukee, one representing chief officers and the other representing Black firefighters.
At a March 30 community meeting, Lipski said department resources and staff diversity – two issues he has frequently spoken publicly about – posed the two largest challenges facing the department.
According to data provided by Lipski at the meeting, Milwaukee fire engines performed almost 90,000 runs in 2021, up from around 60,000 in 2010. That comes as seven fire stations were closed since 2018, a 20% reduction.
Complicating matters more recently is a fracture in the local private ambulance industry, which handles lower-level emergencies. In 2021, a worker shortage caused two of the city’s three private ambulance contractors to struggle with call volumes, forcing one of them to end its work in Milwaukee.
Lipski has continued former chief Mark Rohlfing’s efforts at greater collaboration with neighboring fire departments, and this year, Lipski’s department began training 60 people to work for the remaining private ambulance providers.
At his community meeting, Lipski said the training initiative was working and the director of operations for Bell Ambulance, one of the private companies involved, thanked Lipski for his leadership.
“We have built a system that is regaining health,” Lipski said. “We’re not there yet, but we have decompressed some of this strain and we’re getting the remaining two private ambulance companies to operational health.”
At the same meeting, Lipski said he was compiling recommendations from a workgroup commission for improving diversity within the department. As the department’s percentage of white workers has dipped from 77% at the outset of Lipski’s tenure as chief to 71% in March 2022, he has repeatedly acknowledged the department is not reflective of the city of Milwaukee.
Tony Snell, the chair of the city’s Equal Rights Commission, said Lipski has proven to be a leader in racial equity efforts.
“You’re honest, you’re active, you’re a participant,” Snell said at Lipski’s community meeting.