March 28, 2013

Consultant: Portland should hire firefighters to cut overtime

An outside report cites inadequate staffing in some areas of the Portland department, despite its large numbers.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

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.

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Engine 5 rolls out on a call Friday from the Central Fire Station on Congress Street in February. Portland employs 234 firefighters in seven stations, not including the fireboat quarters and air rescue unit.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Download and read the Portland Fire Department Performance and Management Study.

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.

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