PORTLAND – The City Council on Monday accepted a $1.1 million federal grant that will continue to fund 12 firefighters originally cut from the 2009 budget.

The city received a two-year SAFER grant in 2011 that restored the positions.

It applied for a two-year extension to the grant last year, but was turned down in February.

In July, the city was notified that additional funding was available and its request had been approved, Fire Chief Jerome Lamoria said in a memo to the council.

Lamoria told the council the grant will continue to fund the department’s confined space rescue unit, which specializes in rescuing injured workers in hard-to-reach spaces. About a dozen businesses are interested in signing contracts with the unit, he said. Only two contracts have been signed so far, he said, but if they all come to fruition, the department could generate $376,500 for the city.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires businesses whose workers operate in confined spaces to have access to a safety team. A business can put together its own team, hire a contractor or develop a memorandum of understanding with a local fire department to meet the requirement.

Lamoria said the department also is looking to train other confined rescue units, which could generate more revenue.

“I’m very proud of the accomplishments we’ve made,” LaMoria said. “This grant gives a great opportunity to build on the success of the confined space rescue program.”

Councilor Edward Suslovic was the only councilor to oppose the grant, which would require the city to maintain its current staffing levels for the next two year. He questioned whether the confined space rescue unit had secured enough revenue to meet the council’s mandate that it become self-sustaining.

Meanwhile, Suslovic anticipates an even more difficult budget next year. He said freezing current staffing levels at one of the city’s largest departments — with a $16 million budget — could lead to deeper cuts elsewhere.

“I’m concerned about tying our hands on a very significant expenditure,” said Suslovic.

Suslovic has been critical of the department’s staffing levels, which are above the regional average.

Public Safety Solutions Inc. was hired in January to review the Fire Department. The consulting firm reported in March that Portland employs 2.81 firefighters per 1,000 residents, not including staffing for the fireboat and the airport. That’s well above the average of 1.77 per capita in 51 other New England communities.

The Portland Press Herald found that Portland employs 3.54 firefighters per 1,000 residents, based on overall employment and the 2010 census. That was the highest rate among 50 communities surveyed.

Lamoria continues to work on implementing changes to the Fire Department that were recommended by the consultant. He is expected to present his recommendations to the council in the coming months.

Councilor John Anton, however, dismissed Suslovic’s concern that accepting the grant would lead to deeper cuts elsewhere. He noted that council funded the 12 firefighter positions in the 2014 budget without the grant funding.

City Manager Mark Rees said by accepting the grant the city would be able to use the revenue generated from the confined space rescue contracts for other budget items.

 

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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Twitter: @randybillings