PORTLAND – It should be no surprise that the words “organism” and “organization” share the same root. Like an organism, an organization has a life cycle: They are both born of necessity, they grow to meet needs, and when all needs are satisfied, they disintegrate.
The exception to this rule is a public emergency service agency. The nature of human existence requires that emergency medical services and fire and police protection be provided for a need that is not always constant. Therein lies the challenge for the leaders of these organizations: To what extent does a public organization grow to meet the potential needs of its population?
And so that question must be posed to the Portland Fire Department. Much has been made of its operations of late, most recently with an opinion piece by Jake Thomas of Oregon (“Maine Voices: Fire Department must explore new ideas to contain costs,” Nov. 7). And much will likely be made as we see the results of the search for a new fire chief and the consultant’s report commissioned by our City Council.
As citizens, we should all be willing to contribute to our collective protection, and we should do so as informed members of society. Therefore, I should like to address some points that were raised by Mr. Thomas.
He says that a “good rule of thumb” is to have two firefighters inside a building and at least two firefighters outside a building in order for a fire attack to begin, thus, with three-person companies, the Portland Fire Department is not appropriately deploying resources.
It is irresponsible to call this model a “rule of thumb.” It is, in fact, federal law. With the only exception being immediate danger to life, Occupational Safety and Health Administration Standard 1910.134 requires a minimum two-person rescue team at the ready any time personnel are operating in a life-threatening atmosphere.
With this law and industry standards in mind, fire departments deploy resources first to protect the lives of citizens and personnel, and then to overwhelm the emergency.
Imagine if you were to go to the Emergency Department because you were having a heart attack. Would it be more efficient to have one doctor and one nurse sequentially performing all of the procedures necessary to stabilize you, or would you rather have a team of clinicians simultaneously performing those critical tasks? Fire departments tend to be organized for the latter, deploying teams from multiple companies to most emergencies in order to perform all of the necessary stabilization elements efficiently and simultaneously.
The need to deploy resources in this fashion is reinforced by National Fire Protection Association Standard 1710, which recommends that no fewer than 14 firefighters be deployed within eight minutes of a routine structure fire 90 percent of the time. The same standard recommends that a first responder arrive at a medical incident within five minutes of being dispatched and that an advanced life support provider arrive within eight minutes 90 percent of the time.
It is a real challenge to adequately stage resources to meet these standards, especially as populations shift from the center of a municipality to its fringes. But to suggest that establishing volunteer companies in this day and age to meet these challenges is only to illustrate one’s lack of understanding of the industry.
It is true that volunteer fire companies exist within career departments. In fact, there are several volunteer companies in our island neighborhoods. But the difficulty in recruiting, training, equipping, insuring and retaining volunteer firefighters in a city like Portland is simply impractical.
Equally impractical would be a reliance on the LifeFlight helicopter ambulances to provide EMS to our islands. Perhaps Mr. Thomas has been away from Maine for too long to recall the turbulent Northeast weather, weather that helicopters will not fly in.
His only redeeming suggestion is to explore more robust mutual aid agreements with surrounding communities. The study of public administration has yet to prove that cost savings are always or easily achieved by government mergers (see the recent merger of our communications center with South Portland and Cape Elizabeth), but evidence does suggest that service can be improved with sound mutual aid and interlocal agreements.
It is sometimes difficult for municipal agencies to change. Not always because of personal resistance, but because of financial practicality. New fire stations, new training and different equipment cost money.
These essential services should be supported by the citizens, and we should ourselves be informed as best we can as to how these organizations must be structured to be best prepared for our potential needs.
They are, after all, our insurance. Like insurance, if you’ve never had to use it, you question its necessity. If you’ve had to use it, you praise its value.
Phil Selberg is a resident of Portland and a firefighter for the city of South Portland.