Wolfgang Schäuble is not one who stands still. Quickly disinfected his hands at the entrance, then hurried up the stairs. His office is on the second floor of the main fire station near Sendlinger Tor. He is now walking quickly down the linoleum corridor. Before he has time for a conversation, he has to quickly promote a few colleagues – hand over certificates, done. Hopefully it won’t bother him if he walks around talking, says Schäuble. He’ll be doing a few laps of his office for the next hour. From the conference table to the window, from the window to the desk. Wolfgang Schäuble, 58, is Munich’s top firefighter – and since the corona pandemic has also been the operational head of the city’s crisis team. Mobility should be part of the job description.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Lord Mayor Dieter Reiter (SPD) approached Schäuble. Could he imagine leading the crisis team? During the refugee autumn 2015, the two got to know and appreciate each other. If you ask the mayor why Schäuble is the right person for the job, he says that he always keeps a cool head, even in the most stressful crisis situations, for professional reasons. “I appreciate his calm and level-headed manner.” In any case, Schäuble could imagine that very well. The staff met for the first time on March 2, 2020 and has now met 120 times. The core consists of the mayor, crisis chief Schäuble, the two mayors and the city officials whose areas are most affected. Depending on the situation, other participants come, such as the managing director of the Munich Clinic. In the committee, the topics that are currently important are discussed, decisions are ultimately made by the mayor.
How has Schäuble’s life changed as a result of the new task? The “time required” has already tightened, he says. And the focus of his work has shifted. “Actually, I manage this house”, the professional fire brigade, with 2200 employees. In addition, there is now “the regularity of the crisis team”, which now meets about every third day for two hours, “it doesn’t matter whether it’s Christmas or Easter, it just goes through”. In the beginning the staff met every day. This first phase of the pandemic was also the most challenging for Schäuble. As a man from the outside, he first had to build trust and generate acceptance. With the others there was initially a skepticism, “a reserve as to whether this can work”. After eight or nine weeks it was over, says Wolfgang Schäuble. But he had to go through that first. We have long since grown together well. Even if there are always controversial discussions, there is a pleasant atmosphere.
The crisis team always starts with a presentation on the latest figures and findings. Schäuble describes it as “mantra-like”, “the bare facts”, the latest cabinet resolutions. Just as he has been presenting them to the general meetings of the city council for some time. Since the pandemic, they always start with a Schäuble quarter of an hour. The crisis chief then gives a very factual, very calm, tongue-in-cheek comment: how many people are newly infected with the virus, how many intensive care beds are occupied, how many vaccination doses have already been injected. The city councilors then have the opportunity to ask questions. Most of the time, there is long and passionate discussion. He understands very well that the city council wants to get involved, says Schäuble. But crises are “areas of action for the executive”.
Wolfgang Schäuble grew up, not related to or by marriage to the President of the German Bundestag, in Radolfzell on Lake Constance. As a little boy he wanted to be a firefighter like many little boys. “But it didn’t grow together with me,” says Schäuble and grins – the wish remained. After graduating from high school, he went to Karlsruhe to study, first mechanical engineering, then civil engineering. He then moved to Munich and began a traineeship with the professional fire brigade. Analytical thinking had already played a major role during my studies, now “the mechanics of crisis management” was added. He wanted to stay in southern Germany. And if you, like him, are enthusiastic about the size of the system and want to play in a certain league like Munich, you have to move there, says Schäuble. “The league is not coming to you.” In 2005 he became head of the fire department.
Dealing with crises is normal for him. It takes less than five minutes for Schäuble to talk to crisis management, because he is in his element. It is a special way of looking at things, a different way of thinking and leading. But above all: “You just have to have learned it. Then in the end it doesn’t matter whether it’s a railway accident or a pandemic.” Bringing a derailed system back into order – that’s what it’s all about. That includes a constant focus and prioritization: Where do you start, what do you put in first, second, third place, what do you leave behind because there are no resources? To do this, “peel out the fields that need to be strengthened”. An example, please? That at a certain point you had to decide to strengthen contact tracking.
The fact that the deficiency has to be managed, first there were too few masks, later too few vaccines and too few tests, that too is “standard” for the crisis specialist Schäuble. With a big fire it is no different, there too you have “too few people and too many tasks”. It then comes down to: who is most at risk, who to rescue first? The difference is in the course of time: “Usually it’s more about hours. Now it drags on.” As the operational manager, Schäuble does not make any decisions. But he sees it as his job to bring about decisions. You have to adapt again and again: “In the first wave there were different problems than in the second or third.” The fact that decisions are often stuck at higher levels, that many things are progressing so slowly, annoys him sometimes. He wonders, for example, how easy it is to restrict fundamental rights on the one hand and how complicated it becomes on the other when it comes to data protection.
Despite all the responsibility, he always tries to keep a “humorous distance”, says Schäuble. “Don’t take your own actions too seriously.” He’ll have a few days off next week. Nevertheless, he will switch to the crisis team meeting. “Otherwise you will be a bit shot from all the free time.” Normally he would go skiing or sailing to compensate – none of this is now possible. He too discovered walking. Walking through the empty city center in the first lockdown, “that was a great feeling”. He has to go to the dentist now, little dental crisis.