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September 2014

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Summit Chief Milt Wegner saw fire department through to the end

Summit fire chief reflects on 44 years in fire service

He was there at the beginning, and he saw it through to the end. Milt Wegner, 76, was a charter member of Summit Fire District when it began in 1969, and retired as Chief on Dec. 31, 2012, when it consolidated with the Dousman Fire Department.

Today Wegner continues to serve as assistant chief in the newly configured department.

We recently sat down with Wegner and asked him to recall his 44-year career with Summit.

In the beginning

Wegner traces his interest in the field to his older stepbrother who was a firefighter. After he married and relocated to the then-Town of Summit, he learned from a neighbor that officials were considering starting a fire department.

"I was excited and very interested in it and I asked him to let me know when the town was planning on meeting to discuss the future of the Summit Fire Department," he recalled.

He went to the first organization meeting and the others that followed.

"I still remember where I was sitting and everything," when the decision was made, Wegner recalled.

When the first fire district was formed, Wegner was a part of it. "We purchased two used fire trucks from the Village of Elm Grove and one new tanker," he said.

It began a career that Wegner describes as "not only something that is in your heart, it's in your blood too," he said.

In the field

A handful of calls remain vivid in his mind.

The first major fire Wegner was involved with occurred at a Nashotah lumber yard.

It was on a day in January in the afternoon and the temperature was 20 degrees below zero," he said.

"In those days, the majority of fires were chimney and electrical; but in Nashotah it was a structure fire that was completely demolished," Wegner added.

"We were so cold. We didn't have the turnout gear we have now. It was so cold, everything froze up on us - the truck froze right to the ground," Wegner recalled.

The longtime firefighter also remembered an ice storm in 1976.

"All the wires were down and the power was out all around us. The ice was so thick on the wires; trees were down. We were out all night and for days after," because of the potential for fire, he explained. In addition, the fire department helped residents when they could. "We brought portable generators to people," Wegner added.

One particular incident that never fades from memory concerned a fatal house fire that took place in the 1980s at a residence on Beach Road.

"It happened on a fall afternoon, and there were two people in the building. The wind was horrendous," he recalled.

One of the occupants made it out of the house, but the other did not.

"I'll never forget it; it was as touching as anything I even went though. It was very tense for the firefighters because we knew someone was in there and we couldn't get in. It started at one end of the house and spread in a short time. We did what we could," he explained.

Big changes

While working on call as a firefighter for Summit, Wegner's paying job was with Chrysler in Hartford.

At that point, firefighters who lived nearby the station were notified of a fire when they heard the siren activated.

Then firefighters alerted one another via the old "telephone tree" form of notice, where each one was responsible for calling the next name on the list.

That system was eventually replaced by pagers.

In 1977, Wegner took a job with the then-Town of Summit in its Public Works Department, and worked there for 22 years. In 2003, he became Summit's fire chief.

Over his career, he has seen some substantial changes in his field; key among them is the focus on fire safety education.

"Smoke detectors and imaging cameras - people have been educated on the importance of them over the last 15 to 20 years. That's one of the many factors to keep everyone safe," he said.

Consolidation

"I was involved for 20-plus years in meetings and more meetings over the issue consolidation," Wegner said.

"They would go on and fall apart and start again and again, and again. It was something you thought would never really happen, but you knew it had to happen," he said.

"We tried it from many angles. Oconomowoc was our neighbor, our idol. They helped us get started," he said of Summit's fire services.

"We worked very closely with them; we were the small guys, the underdogs," he said.

"To me the Oconomowoc Fire Department, they were like brothers to me. We built this fire house together because we were going to work together," he said.

Wegner admits he was disappointed, from a personal standpoint, that the merger between those two fire service entities never came to fruition, but he is equally sure that consolidation with Dousman will work well.

City of Oconomowoc Fire Department Deputy Chief Glenn Leidel, a longtime friend and colleague, speaks highly of Wegner and his firefighting career.

"I have known Milt for over 25 years, through the Waukesha County Fire Chiefs Association and our Lake Area Mutual Aid Fire Departments Fire Chiefs group, even before I came to the Oconomowoc Fire Department.

"He has always been a good friend and valued peer at emergency scenes. We have worked many emergencies together. We have worked especially closely for the last five years to plan and implement a merger between the Summit and Oconomowoc Fire Departments. While this has not come to fruition as originally planned, the merger of Summit and Dousman fire departments will still provide an increased level of fire and Emergency Medical Services to the Village of Summit. The groundwork of cooperation and teamwork between our departments still assisted in that process. It has been my pleasure and honor to serve beside him," Leidel said.

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