Judith Ann Moriarty
City People

Frank Alioto

He’s a fireman, an author, a walking tour guide, and a true urbanite.

By - Oct 10th, 2012 10:18 am
Brady Street Fire House Firemen- from the left- Pat McGarry, Scott Vilter, Frank Alioto, Rick Hawthorne, Mike Bongiorno

Brady Street Fire House Firemen- from the left- Pat McGarry, Scott Vilter, Frank Alioto, Rick Hawthorne, Mike Bongiorno

Frank D. Alioto recently celebrated his fiftieth birthday, and hopes to retire from the Milwaukee Fire Department in five years, perhaps to write The Great American Novel. He’s already penned a slim volume, “Milwaukee’s Brady Street Neighborhood,” published by Arcadia in 2008.

Alioto says it would take pages to describe his passion for this city where he was born on July 12, 1962. His parents were Frank Alioto and Gerry Orzechowski, who melded their Polish and Italian heritages in raising their four boys. Their home was first on Warren Avenue, north of Brady, then in Bay View where Frank attended Bay View High. He spent a college year at Lakeland College in Sheboygan before high-tailing home to UW-Milwaukee, and later taking a shot at the fire exam.

And so began his climb up the ladder of Milwaukee Fire Department promotions, which are very competitive and take a lot of education and training, Frank says, with each new level bringing responsibilities and challenges. And in case you’re wondering if he wears red suspenders, yes, he does. They’re used to hold up heavy bunker pants. “Otherwise, we’d be pulling up our pants at fires,” he explains.

Over the years, his workplaces have been varied, but he recalls them all. His first was Ladder Company 18 on Palmer and Lloyd Sts. in Brewer’s Hill. Then he was assigned to 30th & Locust, Teutonia and Locust, Holton and Nash, and 64th and Fairview. From 1983 to 1987, he was a firefighter, and from ‘87 to ‘89, a driver or Heavy Equipment Operator. He made Lieutenant, then forged forward to become a Captain. He just made the grade as Battalion Chief, assigned to Battalion 4 on Chase and Euclid in Bay View, not far from where he lived 44 years ago.

In case you’re thinking firefighters sit around the stations playing poker and stroking the silky ears of black and white spotted Dalmatians, they don’t. Their typical day involves lots of cleaning and maintenance of both equipment and the station. Other days are spent shopping for groceries (they pay for what they eat), fire drills, tours and public relations assignments. “At night, we sleep,” he muses.

They also buy their own exercise equipment, ping pong tables, television sets and what not. It would be nice to paint a sweet, Norman Rockwell-style image of guys in red suspenders sitting around doing nothing. Their lives aren’t like that. Nor do they have Dalmatians, those remnants of the horse-drawn fire engine era.

They sleep at night, yes, but any moment might signal an emergency medical or fire call; for instance, the Pizza Man fire, a major fire which Frank mostly missed due to a shift change. That said, he’s helped fight hundreds of fires in his 29 years on the job: fires at The Boulevard Inn, Someplace Else, Century Hall, and he was first on the scene at the Falk explosion.

Through it all, he’s stayed close to the Brady Street area, living on Astor Street with his wife and two kids, only a block from where he once served as Captain of Engine Company #6 on Franklin and Brady. They are a one car family, and Frank either rides his bike to work, or when winter is wont to bear down on our town, he takes the bus. “Living just off Brady, we can walk, bike, and bus to much of what we do,” he says. His wife Rachelle works at UW-Milwaukee, and his kids, Sam and Ally, bus to Rufus King High School. Glorioso’s and Sciortino’s are within a block. What more do you need?

Asked what it is that binds him to Milwaukee, Alioto wonders if it isn’t in his blood, perhaps passed down from his maternal grandfather who was a longtime Milwaukee mail carrier. On his days off, grandpa would take Frank on long walks around town, and with those walks came stories. Frank notes that his own son, Sam, shows signs of being an urbanite.

At 5′ 9″ and 230 pounds, Frank keeps in shape by conducting (you guessed it) walking tours, and in a switcheroo, on October 2, he’ll be narrating a pontoon boat tour on the Milwaukee River. Naturally, it’s sponsored by the Brady Street Association.

But what’s it like to actually fight a fire? “It’s a real adrenaline rush,” he says. “The chaos, the smoke, the noise, the danger, the teamwork, the physicality of it. We see things that are scary, gory, funny and sometimes downright bizarre. You never know what human foibles will manifest in the need for firefighters on a given day. That’s what makes it fun and exciting. And the scary and depressing calls are balanced by the chance to make someone’s day better or even save a life.”

As a child, his parents took him to a vantage point across the river from the Wisconsin Paperboard Company, which was then St. Regis Paper on the Milwaukee River. Together, they watched it burn, and it was blazes like that that influenced his later career choice. In January of ’84, he had to jump out of a 3rd floor window to escape a fire explosion, at the Matthew Keenan House at 777 N. Jefferson St. Like a genuine Milwaukeean, he’s proud to say that, compared to other cities, Milwaukee’s Fire Department is “very well trained, experienced and aggressive.”

“If I didn’t live here, I would live in Chicago or New York City,” he says. “I’m a city boy through and through. Outside of that one year away at college in Sheboygan, I am a Milwaukeean, and love this city.”

Heck, just this morning, he adds, a guy asked him where to go for a fish fry.

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One thought on “City People: Frank Alioto”

  1. julilly kohler says:

    And if you consult Frankie on where to go in other cities — he knows New York like the back of his hand — you’ll find his love of neighborhoods and cities goes deep as crabgrass and travels just as wide. He’s a one-in-a-million-guy, and MIlwaukee — and B.St. — is lucky to have him. Great article.

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