February 6, 2013

Is the Portland Fire Department overstaffed?

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

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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
Click to explore how the size of Portland’s fire department compares to those in other mid-size cities in New England:



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.

Call volume also can drive staffing levels, but Portland's 15,000 calls per year does not suggest the city's department is exceptionally busy.

Meriden, Conn., for example, has a population of nearly 61,000 -- about 5,000 fewer residents than Portland -- and responded to 13,899 calls in 2012. Chicopee, Mass., which has 55,298 people, responded to 11,000. Brockton, Mass., which has 93,810 people and fewer firefighters than Portland, responded to 21,000 calls last year.

Call volumes were not readily available from most of the 55 communities surveyed by the paper, however. Nor was it clear whether any of the departments offer advanced EMS service like Portland.


Maryland-based Public Safety Solutions, Inc. began a top-down review of the fire department Jan. 14 and is expected to issue its recommendations in March. The study will cost $39,000.

Brooks, the union president, said firefighters support the review.

"We fully support our new fire chief and the city's effort to complete a review of department operations. But comparing our department to departments in other cities is complicated," Brooks said.

Les Adams, the company's president, said a team of five consultants will spend three to four weeks in the city before producing a 200-to-300-page report that will address staffing, budget, overtime, station locations, and the like.

Adams, who has 22 years of experience working as a firefighter, paramedic and chief officer, said in an interview that he has been impressed with the Portland Fire Department. For an old department, it is progressive in its EMS training for firefighters and staff appears to be open to improvements, he said.

"We've done a lot of these studies throughout the years and it doesn't take us long to get a sense for the outlook and the attitude and potential receptivity of people," Adams said. "Our initial impression is (firefighters) are receptive and interested in looking for better ways to be doing things."

Adams, as well as other fire professionals, emphasized that the biggest factor in a fire department's staffing is what the community is willing to pay for and the level of risk that community is willing to incur.

Shan English, chief executive officer of the Texas-based English & Associates, said station locations, equipment and policies for manning fire trucks also factor into staffing.

Older cities may have fire stations that "are not tactically located," English said. Some communities can actually save money by consolidating stations and reducing staffing, even if it means spending money to build new stations.

"That's a fixed cost compared to staffing, which is an annual cost," English said.

Portland has three fire stations located within 1.6 miles of each other on Congress Street, although it's unclear if the consultants will recommend any consolidation.


Despite having the largest department of mid-sized cities in New England, the department still has trouble containing its overtime costs.

So far this fiscal year, which ends June 30, the department has spent $1.1 million in overtime, according to Nicole Clegg, the city's spokeswoman. The city spent $1.8 million in overtime in fiscal 2011-12 and $2 million in 2010-11. The department averaged $1.3 million in overtime costs in the seven years leading up to fiscal 2011, Clegg said.

While data on overtime spending in other departments was not readily available or easy to compare, Portland's rising overtime costs were one of the major reasons the city hired an outside consultant to review the department.

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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?



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