February 6, 2013

Is the Portland Fire Department overstaffed?

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Portland employs more full-time firefighters than any other midsized city in New England, according to an analysis by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

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

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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A wall at the station is lined with firefighters' gear.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Firefighters per capita in midsized New England cities
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The Portland Fire Department currently employs 234 firefighters in seven stations, not including the fireboat quarters and air rescue unit.

The department has a $16 million budget and operates six fire engines, four ladder trucks, a heavy rescue unit, fireboat, rescue boat, four air rescues units and three ambulances.

The city has 3.54 firefighters for every 1,000 residents, a rate higher than all 45 comparable cities in the region.

On a per-capita basis, no other department even comes close.

The next largest comparable department is in Warwick, Rhode Island, with 2.66 firefighters per 1,000 residents. About half of the communities in Portland's size range -- 40,000 to 100,000 residents -- have fewer than 2 firefighters per 1,000 residents.

Despite its large fire staff, Portland struggles to contain overtime costs that have approached or surpassed $2 million in each of the past two years. Among other factors potentially adding to the cost of the city's $16 million fire department is its 24-hour work shifts, a common practice in the industry that some chiefs say costs more money than it saves.

Staffing in Maine's largest fire department, which accounts for 8 percent of the city's $200 million budget, has been a touchy political issue in Portland for years. And it is now the central focus of a top-down review of the department by a team of city consultants, a study that also coincides with the arrival of a new chief.

The newspaper's analysis of regional staffing levels indicates Portland is an outlier in New England, even among a sample of smaller communities, which tend to have more firefighters per capita. And that finding is supported by two national rankings -- an annual profile of U.S. fire departments and an independent ranking based on U.S. Census data released every five years -- that show Portland also is a large fire department compared to similarly sized communities nationwide.

"You look at the data and it leaps off the page to me," said City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chairs the Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee and has a key fire department oversight role. "No matter how you analyze the data, Portland, Maine, stands out for having a very large fire department."

John Brooks, president of the Local 740 International Association of Firefighters union, said in a written statement that comparing fire departments is complicated and that Portland does not have more firefighters than it needs.

"The Portland Fire Department is not over-staffed," Brooks wrote. "The national standard calls for having four firefighters on a truck and we don't meet that standard."

The type and quantity of fire equipment, including ladder trucks and fire engines, can affect staffing levels and also are being reviewed by the consultants.

Mayor Michael Brennan declined to weigh in on the newspaper's analysis, saying in a written statement that it would be premature to comment on the size of the fire department before the outside consulting firm finishes its report.

"I believe that report and the appointment of the new fire chief will allow the council to map a positive direction for the future," Brennan wrote.


Portland has 234 firefighters, which is actually down from the 300 firefighters employed in 1975. Portland's population is 66,194.

To compare the size of the department, the Press Herald surveyed 44 fire departments in New England cities with 40,000 to 100,000 residents. It also surveyed some larger communities -- Boston, Hartford, Conn., and Providence -- and some smaller ones -- South Portland, Bangor and Portsmouth, N.H.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Jerome LaMoria is sworn in as Portland's 14th fire chief on Jan. 3 at City Hall. In response to the Maine Sunday Telegram's analysis of staffing levels in his department, LaMoria said there's a "danger" in comparing per-capita figures of communities. It's important to consider emergency-response resources available regionally, he said.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Portland personnel fight a fire at the Jordan's Meats plant on Middle Street in May 2010. The department has an annual budget of $16 million.

2010 file photo by Jack Milton/Staff Photographer


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Today's poll: 24-hour shifts

Are 24-hour shifts for firefighters a good idea?



View Results