PORTLAND, Ore. — Recently, the city of Portland, Maine, announced that it will seek a third-party consultation to determine ways to reduce the operating costs of the fire department.
I’ll provide mine for free: As a firefighter in Oregon, I’ve had the exposure to see what works for some of the most successful and innovative fire departments in the nation. I would advocate looking into the options listed below as a way to think outside the box and really realign the operations of the fire department in a way that would be most effective for the modern city.
— Portland, Maine, needs a realignment of resources based on the population.
The peninsula stations have largely been unchanged in the past 70 years, despite the progression of the population and daily work force to points west and south of the city. The argument that the downtown needs to maximize its fire protection by keeping a high number of fire units may be outdated, as the technology in fire prevention evolves.
Since the majority of calls are medical, rather than fire, the emphasis should be on having leaner stations that can effectively answer these calls without having an abundance of underused resources. A handsome complement of equipment is a nice resource to have in reserve, but an expensive one to be staffed.
In addition, the department needs to make the engine and ladder companies that it has in service effective ones. A rule of thumb that most departments rely on in determining whether or not interior fire attack can begin is to have two firefighters inside the building, and at least two firefighters outside of the building for rescue.
Currently, most of the fire units in Portland operate three-man companies, which generally means that at least two units need to be dispatched in order for fire attack to begin. Reallocating manpower to rigs and reducing the number of units in the department may be an option to consider.
— Secondly, the department should look to contract out servicing of fire equipment to neighboring cities.
For small departments, maintenance is expensive and oftentimes not worth having dedicated mechanics and equipment within their public works for a fleet that may not warrant it. Monies generated by servicing neighboring departments could be used to offset operation costs or even to generate funds for new equipment down the road.
— The operation of the fireboat needs to be reconsidered. Currently, a three-man crew is staffing the fireboat at all times, and yet the average response to Peaks Island exceeds 15 minutes. For medical emergencies, the department has to ask itself if it is really worth having a full-time crew on a boat that provides ineffective response times.
Consider LifeFlight helicopter service on the island as a solution to save both time and operational expense. Operations that necessitate that fireboat may be accomplished through cross-staffing the boat with engine companies on the mainland.
— A more effective mutual aid system might be worth investigating.
Many departments across the United States dispatch units based on geographical location of the station, regardless of the city limits. This means better response times, and more strategically placed fire stations.
In addition, departments that participate in this program have the luxury of sharing specialty apparatus, such as heavy rescues, hazardous material rigs or aerial ladder trucks, which are expensive and not always vital for each municipality to own.
— The department needs to have an economical solution for non-life-threatening emergencies such as minor medical calls, fire alarm activations or smoke detector problems.
Dispatching fire engines not only is expensive, but it also prevents those units from responding to more serious calls. Some departments have begun using cars outfitted with one paramedic and basic medical equipment on such calls, with extremely positive results from the community as well as far lower operating costs.
— Finally, the city should consider implementing a volunteer fire program to help supplement the career fire staff.
Volunteers could provide additional manpower for the rare working fire, as well as station coverage for rigs that may be disbanded. Although training volunteer firefighters is just as rigorous and expensive as training full-time ones, they would not require any other compensation that the full-time firefighters warrant.
An effective volunteer department is common even among larger departments, as it is mutually beneficial for departments to use the manpower, as well as for the volunteers to get experience that may translate into a career role down the road.
– Jake Thomas is a Maine native who now works as a firefighter with the Cornelius Fire Department in Washington County, Ore.