As Waukesha's new fire chief, Jesse Alba reaches top of profession

Christopher Kuhagen
Jesse Alba
Published on: 4/23/2013

One day after being named the City of Waukesha's 19th fire chief, Jesse Alba was still getting used to answering the phone with his new title.

"It's a little weird," said Alba, who was selected April 18 by the Police and Fire Commission. "It's not that different as I just have to remember to delete one word."

But he knows, though, by removing the "assistant" from his title it puts him at the top of his profession and within the department.

"I'm so humbled by the opportunity and couldn't be more pleased," Alba said.

It's not something, however, he necessarily envisioned when he started his career with the WFD in 1986 - even though his wife might have.

"It was funny because my wife and I were having dinner the night I was named chief and she said, 'I knew you were going to be chief (one day),' " Alba said. "But I was like 'I didn't.' I didn't consider it until the past couple of years.

"I just wanted to do whatever job I had very well and when feel that you are doing that well you look for the next challenge and the added responsibility."

Lengthy résumé

He's certainly gained these extra responsibilities over the years as he worked his way up the ladder. Alba, who grew up in Milwaukee, started as a firefighter 27 years ago, was promoted to equipment operator in 1995 and then lieutenant two years later.

Others then began taking notice of Alba, as he was swooped away by the Brookfield Fire Department to become a deputy chief/shift commander.

"It was flattering at the time, because I wasn't pursuing any outside employment," Alba said. "But then-assistant chief John Dahms came and asked me about the position, so that (job) really offered me tremendous learning potential. I had some terrific years in the City of Brookfield."

Along the way, he received more education and as his management skills were improving in Brookfield, he was recruited back to Waukesha to be the deputy chief of training and emergency medical services.

"It was another great opportunity to come back to my home organization," Alba said.

After seven years in that position, he has spent the last two years as the assistant chief of operations.

Alba praises candidates

And when Waukesha Fire Chief Allen LaConte retired in March 2012 after almost 35 years with the department, one could tell Alba was intrigued by that position.

"This is a pretty desirable (job)," Alba said in an interview last year. "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."

He was right.

Besides Alba, Assistant Fire Chief Steve Howard, who was serving as the interim chief since LaConte retired, as well as Waukesha's Battalion Chief Joseph Hoffman were among the top six candidates the PFC considered.

After preliminary interviews, the list was trimmed to four with Alba, Hoffman, City of Kenosha Fire Department Battalion Chief Matthew Haerter and David Litton, fire chief in the Village of Bolingbrook, Ill.

"It was tremendously exciting," Alba said of the selection process. "The candidates, whether they were the internal or external, were exemplary people in our industry. All were top-notch candidates."

Having a single leader

Forty-nine candidates originally applied at the beginning of a process that started late last year after the search was stalled for a number of months because the Common Council and PFC disputed the process in which a candidate should be picked.

"It certainly was a long 16 months," said Alba, referring to when LaConte first announced his retirement in late 2011. "But our organization works so well together that it's not like the day-to-day duties were being compromised.

"But now with our staff being set, it's just easier that we now have a single leader as opposed to a staff."

Alba's former position won't be filled as he said one assistant chief position was eliminated in this year's budget.

Howard will remain as the assistant chief and Alba thanks him for his work during the transition.

"I'm very pleased that's he's on our staff," Alba said. "As our interim chief he made sure the day-to-day operations, administrative duties and budget were being taken care of, and he adds to our strong team."

Goal on his radar

As the new leader, though, Alba said one of his priorities is to continue to improve response times. The department works in a seven-minute timeframe that says all firefighters can get to any place in the city within seven minutes. This means making sure the city's five fire stations are in the best locations.

Alba said one such location that will be looked at is Fire Station No. 3 on Sentry Drive. He said moving it more southwest in the city is most logical.

Communicating effectively will be important in this venture as well as when working with his 104 staff members, on budgets, personnel matters, regional partnerships and simply being the face of the department.

Alba says this won't be a problem as being a strong communicator is what he stressed in his interview and what he ultimately believes won him the position.

"I want our community to know about the Fire Department, how we're doing and how we're serving the community," Alba said. "I'm the marketing guy of our organization, not just internally but more externally as a member of a regional community, and I take great pride in that."