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LaConte officially steps down as fire chief

Assistant Chief Steve Howard will take over on interim basis

Waukesha Fire Chief LaConte. Photo courtesy of Jesse Alba, Waukesha Fire Department.

Waukesha Fire Chief LaConte. Photo courtesy of Jesse Alba, Waukesha Fire Department.

March 6, 2012

As Allen LaConte's long career progressed with the Waukesha Fire Department, he knew what he wanted.

"As I got more involved in this business, I (realized) 'I'd like to be a chief some day,' " LaConte said.

He did everything he could to make this happen. La Conte started out as a volunteer firefighter at the Menomonee Falls Fire Department. He moved through the ranks with the WFD, earned a graduate degree in management from Cardinal Stritch University, taught part-time at Waukesha County Technical College for about 20 years and eventually became the assistant chief position under then-Fire Chief Robert Stedman in the 1990s.

When Stedman retired in 2001, LaConte got his wish as he became the city's 18th fire chief and has overseen many changes to the department. After almost 35 years with the department, LaConte is now the one who is retiring. He announced his retirement late last year and officially stepped down from the position last Friday.

"You know when it's time," LaConte, 62, said about his retirement adding, "I firmly believe that there are people within this organization that can move into that position and can continue to move this department down the road in a positive fashion and provide excellent service to the community."

Assistant Fire Chief Steve Howard was named the interim fire chief by the Police and Fire Commission last week.

"I'm pleased to be given the honor until the Police and Fire Commission selects a permanent one," Howard said.

Howard will still have to apply for the job, but it could be some time before one is selected as the commission requested that the city administrator solicit bids for a search firm. Assistant Fire Chief Jesse Alba, who has been with the department since 1986, could also be considered.

"We have lots of qualified people," Alba said. "This is a pretty desirable one. Who wouldn't want to lead an organization like (this)? There's a number of us ready to take chief jobs if we wanted, and I think a number of us will compete for this job."

Moved up in the ranks

Regardless of who gets the position, Alba is confident the department won't miss a beat. "He sets us up perfectly," Alba said. "It's not going to be a huge transition. His successor will be very fortunate. We're not going to have to dig out of the basement to try to recover."

If history repeats itself, Howard, who started with the department in 1988, has a good shot of getting the position. When Stedman retired, LaConte was named the interim chief and after a search, the police and fire commission determined that LaConte was the best fit for the job.

LaConte, who grew up in Milwaukee before moving with his family to Menomonee Falls during his teenage years, started with the WFD in 1977 as a firefighter. He became a paramedic in 1979 and when the department was looking for a full-time training offer, he was promoted to captain of training in 1985. He then became a shift commander where he was responsible for all four stations - the department now has five - before being named assistant chief in 1994. He worked under four chiefs in his career and said he gained a lot of valuable knowledge from them - especially the last two, Jerome Seidl, who served from 1984 to 1991, and Stedman, who served from 1991 to 2001.

"I had the opportunity to work with a number of chiefs and you pick up a number of things from different people," LaConte said. "And you take all those things and try to put them together and use all the positive things that you've learned in order to make your job better and the organization better."

Training stressed

When he became chief, his crew did a statistical analysis of all the stations' response times. And when the results came in, it showed LaConte that there needed to be a change.

"We put together a plan to better relocate the stations so everybody in this community gets the same type of service," LaConte said. The department's headquarters in downtown Waukesha - Station 1 - was rebuilt in April 2007. A fifth station on the city's west side, 3051 Summit Ave., was built in February 2010. And the opening and the relocating of Station 2 took place at 1714 Pearl St. on the city's east side in December 2011.

Under his leadership, LaConte also helped utilize the department's strengths by contracting the city with the Countywide Hazardous Materials Response. Alba also said LaConte always stressed academic training.

"As I evolved in my career the city was growing," LaConte said. "There was no question that response times were becoming longer and our business is all about response time.

"The longer it takes you to get there, the less positive outcome it's going to be. So when I became chief that was one of those things that we really needed to focus on."

Listening skills

Still, he doesn't want to take all the credit.

"It wasn't just me and my assistant chiefs and my staff up here," LaConte said. "It was everyone who got involved. I didn't do this by myself."

Alba, who was tutored by LaConte when LaConte served as his training officer, said LaConte's effort shouldn't go unnoticed.

"He presented it to the Council so they knew it was the right thing and was for the best interest of the city and he made it work," Alba said.

LaConte has always been willing to learn.

"I've always been an active listener," LaConte said. "There are experts here. I'm not an expert in everything, but I know who is within the organization, and I use those skills to benefit the organization and community.

"You keep those people informed as to what the mission statement and it's real smooth."

Alba recognized LaConte's communication skills.

"He's a great listener and assesses what's going on," Alba said. "He does nothing instantaneously, because he knows there's negative ramifications for people who overreact immediately after something occurs."

As chief, LaConte had to work with his 106-member staff at the department plus with many departments within the City of Waukesha.

Making a difference

Interim City Administrator Steve Crandell got to know LaConte well. The two began working for the city around the same time and despite being in different fields, Crandell watched the fire department grow under LaConte's watch.

"I believe Allen has been instrumental in bringing the fire department forward," Crandell said referring to the new or relocated stations. "More importantly, in my opinion, he's highly respected by his peers and staff.

"He, as the chief, has taken a cooperative approach with all of the departments."

That approach was intentional for LaConte.

"I saw that through my career the importance of interacting with other departments," LaConte said. "I think we work real well with other departments."

Crandell had lunch a couple weeks ago with LaConte and soon-to-be retiree Jane Ameel, who is stepping down from her position as the longtime library director in the next couple months. He wanted them to know he appreciates their service.

"I told Allen and Jane that they've truly made a positive impact on this community," Crandell said. "They can leave knowing that they've both made an incredible difference."

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