PORTLAND — A consultant has issued nearly 170 recommendations to improve the Portland Fire Department, including 13 to rein in overtime spending, which topped $1.8 million last year.

Although the report echoes a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram analysis that the city has significantly more firefighters than other cities of its size, it refers to inadequate staffing for certain functions and says the city could reduce overtime expenses by as much as 80 percent if it hired 40 to 50 more firefighters.

Other recommendations include providing training and doing administrative tasks during regular work hours, rather than on overtime.

Public Safety Solutions Inc. of Maryland was paid $39,000 for its top-down review of the department, which has a $16 million budget this year. It delivered a draft of its findings to the city on March 10. The Press Herald filed a Freedom of Access Act request for the draft report on Friday, and the city released it Wednesday.

City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the city withheld the draft report so technical errors could be corrected. The errors did not change the recommendations, she said.

The City Council is scheduled to meet with the consultant to discuss the findings of the review, which was done in January and February, at 5:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall. No public comment will be taken, but Clegg said the city plans a 30- to 60-day comment period.

The study was commissioned in part to address overtime costs and determine whether staffing has kept pace with the reality that three-quarters of the department’s calls are now for emergency medical services, not fires.

John Brooks, president of the firefighters union, said he has reviewed the report but does not want to speak about it publicly until it is presented to the council.

The 523-page report is highly technical. It is expected to help with strategic planning, but it doesn’t appear to give city officials any quick or easy answers for addressing issues in the department.

Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria could not be reached for comment. But in a written statement Wednesday, he said the report sets a path for a more progressive department delivering a higher level of service.

“Today begins an exciting process not only for the department but for the city as a whole, and I along with the city’s firefighters are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work,” LaMoria said. “The report gives us a blueprint from which we can start our work — some of these recommendations we will implement quickly, others will take a bit more time.”

The city said in a release that the department is already working on increasing education and outreach to the community, and establishing a working group to update and create policies and procedures.

Mayor Michael Brennan could not be reached Wednesday. City Councilor John Anton, who leads the council’s Finance Committee, said he had not yet read the report.

The draft focuses primarily on reorganizing the department, reducing overtime costs and increasing reporting requirements and accountability, including reimplementing formal employee evaluations and improving employees’ fitness and safety.

Among the technical policy discussions are some surprising recommendations, including the need for the city to address code violations in its own facilities. Functioning carbon monoxide and smoke detectors should be in every fire station, especially in the sleeping quarters, the report says.

The report commends the department for providing an exceptional level of emergency medical services relative to other departments, noting the cost of EMS is expected to be exceed by revenue by $600,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30.

The report alludes to a “perceived and real animosity that exists between EMS providers and personnel assigned for fire apparatus.”

It also suggests changes to the city’s contract with the union regarding the role that seniority plays in bidding for assignments.

The report says Portland should institute a policy not to dispatch fire apparatus to routine medical calls unless it meets certain criteria, including cardiac arrest or major trauma.

A policy also is needed to govern when emergency lights and flashers are used, noting it is “unnecessary and dangerous to run ‘hot’ to every dispatch or to the hospital.”

The chief should also develop and implement a “comprehensive driver training program,” the report says.

The report recommends restructuring the department’s 24-hour shift schedule to limit employees’ number of consecutive days off. Firefighters now work two 24-hour shifts in three days, then have five days off. The report says a more common 24-hour schedule is one day on and three days off.

It also suggests limiting the consecutive number of hours a firefighter can work to 36 to 48, including overtime, to avoid fatigue and potential injuries. The department now has no limit.

The report attempts to delve into the department’s overtime, which the consultant said seemed high given the staffing. Overtime pay has topped $1.2 million in each of the last eight years, peaking at $1.8 million last year.

The city could not provide enough information to shed light on exactly what is driving overtime costs, the report says.

One factor may be staffing levels, it says. Only 219 uniformed personnel are approved in the current budget, but 229 are on staff.

“A substantial portion of this overtime is likely due to staffing above the budgeted levels,” the report says.

Among the 13 suggestions to reduce overtime is increasing staffing. The report says 269 uniformed employees are needed to meet minimum staffing requirements in an “overtime-neutral way.”

Other recommendations to reduce overtime include a policy to authorize, document and pay overtime, stronger monitoring of sick leave to identify misuse, increased reliance on aid from neighboring communities, and less overtime for training and administrative work.

The draft recommendations are sometimes difficult to reconcile from one subject area to another, particularly with overtime and staffing.

The consultant provided an analysis that shows Portland has more firefighters per capita than typical New England cities, reinforcing the newspaper’s analysis showing Portland’s department as the largest per 1,000 residents of any in New England.

The consultant used different baseline numbers for staffing and population for its analysis, but found the department is significantly larger than the regional average — even excluding assignments to the marine, airport, EMS and other units.

The Press Herald/Telegram found that Portland employs 3.54 firefighters per 1,000 residents, based on overall employment and the 2010 census.

The report says Portland employs 2.34 firefighters per 1,000 residents, based on a different population estimate and excluding staffing for the fireboat, air rescue, fire alarm and EMS teams. That is still above the average in a broad range of New England communities surveyed by the International City/County Management Association, the report says.

The report does not recommend reducing staffing, except for eliminating a deputy chief position. In fact, the consultant recommends in parts of the report that the city follow a staffing formula, based on the number of trucks and stations, that would increase staffing from 229 uniformed personnel to 269.

The consultant recommends keeping a strong presence on the waterfront, including three full-time firefighters to staff the fireboat. It recommends continuing a $300,000 renovation project for the Marine Division crew quarters, in addition to a new station in the Central Waterfront Zone.

Les Adams, president of Public Safety Solutions Inc., will present the findings to the council on Monday.

Adams could not be reached this week, but said in an interview in February that his team of consultants had spoken to more than 70 firefighters and officers, as well as administrators in the city’s finance and public safety departments.

Adams said firefighters were so interested in weighing in on the department’s future that the team set up a table at three or four department training sessions.

“We’d never done that before,” Adams said in February. “Typically, we go to all the stations and that becomes our primary means to have the opportunity to talk to firefighters and officers.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:
rbillings@pressherald.com
Twitter: @randybillings