PORTLAND – City councilors said Monday night that they will look to the city’s staff to decipher a 523-page analysis of the Portland Fire Department, including a recommendation to hire at least 40 firefighters to reduce overtime costs.
The city paid $39,000 to Maryland-based Public Safety Solutions Inc. for a top-down review of the department’s performance and management. The firm delivered its report to the city last week with 169 recommendations, including 13 for reining in overtime costs.
Leslie Adams, president of Public Safety Solutions, presented his findings to the council during a session that was moved from a small conference room to the council chambers because of heavy attendance, including nearly two dozen firefighters.
Adams spent most of his time outlining a proposed reorganization of the department. Councilors focused on his recommendations for limiting overtime and what the report lacked.
If Portland wants to maintain its current level of fire stations and apparatus, Adams said, it should use a staffing formula based on the equipment now in service. That could lead to the hiring of at least 40 more firefighters.
Overtime pay has topped $1.2 million in each of the past eight years, including $1.8 million last year. The hiring of 40 firefighters would cost more than that. If the city hired firefighters with no experience, it would pay nearly $1.9 million in salary and benefits, according to a Portland Press Herald analysis.
Councilor John Anton, who leads the council’s Finance Committee, quickly threw cold water on the idea of boosting staffing to 269, including civilian employees.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said, noting that outside reviews of the city’s golf course and its facilities also recommended significant investments. “That’s not viable. It’s not sustainable.”
Adams said an automated payroll system could reduce overtime. The fire department uses a mostly manual payroll process that is time-consuming and doesn’t adequately track why an employee is not working a shift, he said. Reasons for time off can vary, from sickness or injuries, to vacation or training.
Other councilors criticized what they thought was lacking, or difficult to understand, in the report, including the reallocation of equipment and crews.
Councilor Kevin Donoghue questioned the necessity of overlapping coverage areas on the city’s urban peninsula, where three stations are within two miles of each other. More analysis of the number and location of fire stations and apparatus is needed, he said.
Councilor Edward Suslovic probed Adams for reasons why Portland has so many firefighters for its population.
A Press Herald analysis showed that Portland’s fire department was the largest per capita among about 50 comparable New England cities.
Public Safety Solutions found that it is above the average outlined by the International City/County Management Association.
“This is the central question from which everything else flows,” said Suslovic.
Adams said the per-capita staffing argument is a “red herring” for fire departments because firefighters service things — buildings and property — while police and emergency medical responders serve people.
Meanwhile, the Portland Fire Department is responding to far more medical calls than fire calls.
Adams said it responded to about 440 fire-related calls last year and 11,103 medical calls. The busiest hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., with peak demand around noon.
Public Safety Solutions also recommends keeping a public ambulance service and renaming the Portland Fire Department to reflect the demand for emergency medical services.
Suslovic pressed Adams about the lack of analysis of whether public EMS providers get better results than regional or private ambulance providers. Adams said that was not in the scope of his study.
Councilor Jill Duson said she is eager to see what recommendations the staff makes. “I want to be in a position to defer to staff analysis,” she said.
Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said it will take him 90 days to work his way through the report. During that time, people can comment on it through the city’s website.
LaMoria said once the comment period is over, he will develop a management plan. That plan is expected to tell the council which recommendations can be implemented administratively and which ones require the council to set new policy.
“It’s important we review this (report) in its entirety,” said LaMoria. “I’m excited to finally have it in our hands.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: