February 6, 2013

Is the Portland Fire Department overstaffed?

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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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.

Only New England communities were surveyed because they share similar construction patterns, including age and type of housing stock, and other geographic characteristics such as interstates, cargo ports, airports and waterways.

Based on that survey, the average number of firefighters per 1,000 residents for all 54 communities surveyed is 2.16.

Portland's 3.54 firefighters per capita was the highest on the list, including the smaller and larger cities. Hartford, Conn., was second with 3.15 firefighters per 1,000 residents, Portsmouth, N.H., was third with 2.94, followed by Bangor at 2.72.

Barnstable, Mass., had the lowest per capita at 0.35 per 1,000 residents.

The National Fire Protection Association does not recommend standard staffing levels, but its annual report says the number of firefighters per 1,000 people is "a good way to develop a sense of the size of the department relative to population they protect."

In 2011, the national median number of firefighters per 1,000 residents in cities with 50,000 to 99,999 people was 1.35, according to the fire protection association. The low was zero and high was 3.46, it said. Portland's is 3.54.

When asked how Portland could be larger than the national high, one of the report's authors, Michael J. Karter Jr., said Portland is among a half-dozen communities whose figures were not included in the analysis, because they were outliers that would have inflated the mean number of firefighters per 1,000, misrepresenting the norm.

A separate nationwide comparison of fire departments by City-data.com has Portland tied for 28th for professional firefighters per capita among 2,334 communities with more than 5,000 residents. That ranking is based on information from 2007 from the U.S. Census of Governments -- the most recent available, according to website chief executive officer Lech Mazur.


Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria, who took over the department on Jan. 3, said there is a "danger" in comparing per capita staffing of communities. It's important to look at emergency-response resources available regionally, he said.

For instance, some fire departments surveyed by the newspaper, especially in Massachusetts and Connecticut, are next to one another and may be satisfied with smaller departments because they rely on each other for support, he said. "That's a better opportunity for resource sharing," LaMoria said.

Portland has old, wood-framed homes and buildings that are closely packed, which LaMoria said increases the potential for a large-scale, destructive fire.

But so do other communities, especially those in Massachusetts.

The fire chief in Somerville, Mass., also said square mileage and population density are important when assessing a fire department.

Somerville's 75,754 people, for example, are crammed into 4.12 square miles. That gives Somerville a density of 18,400 people per square mile. Portland, with 21.31 square miles, has a population density of 3,105 people per square mile.

"Somerville is not a good comparison to Portland," said Somerville Fire Chief Kevin Kelleher, whose department has 2.01 firefighters per 1,000 residents.

However, there are some good comparisons using those standards.

Brockton, Mass., is 21 square miles and has 4,398 people per square mile; Meriden, Conn., is nearly 24 square miles, with a density of 2,558, and Norwalk, Conn., is 22.86 square miles, with a density of 3,744.

And, while Portland's fire staffing is 3.54 per 1,000 residents, Brockton, Meriden and Norwalk employ 1.83, 1.63 and 1.52 firefighters per 1,000 people, respectively.

(Continued on page 3)

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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