February 6, 2013

Is the Portland Fire Department overstaffed?

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 3)

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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:

 

DEPARTMENT AT A GLANCE

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 fire department is an area of concern," City Councilor John Anton, who leads the Finance Committee, told the Press Herald back in September when discussing the review. "It's one of the biggest budget drivers."

It's unclear what drove up Portland's overtime costs in recent years, but it's an area LaMoria is looking to get a handle on.

"I'm very, very concerned about overtime," LaMoria said. "It's something that needs to be looked at closely. Nothing is off the table when it comes to bringing the department within budget."

ASSESSING UNION'S MIGHT

Changing a fire department's culture can be a difficult task.

LaMoria, however, said he has been impressed with Portland firefighters' apparent openness to change.

"What you see as tradition, I see as organizational pride; that is the cornerstone of a great organization," LaMoria said. "I don't believe the men and women of the Portland Fire Department are as steeped in tradition and stubborn about change as they have been painted as."

Brooks, the union president, said in a written statement that Portland firefighters are welcoming the outside review of the department. However, in a recent newsletter posted online, the union warned firefighters about a long year ahead.

The newsletter mentions "a certain councilor or two" who don't want to extend a $1.05 million federal grant that funds about a dozen firefighters, because accepting the money could prevent the city from making staffing changes at the department.

"It's obvious we have a few long months ahead of us," the newsletter says. "Our system is working and it's due to our staffing size. Reducing staffing will result in a less safe city to work and live in."

In the past, Portland's union has been active politically and rallied support from out of state when it comes to staffing issues.

In 2008, firefighters rejected a pay freeze that was accepted by six of the eight city unions.

When the city laid off nine firefighters, union members held a demonstration on the steps of City Hall that drew more than 200 people. About 25 firefighters, including some from Rhode Island, protested on motorcycles, revving their engines before the protest started.

At the rally, members of Local 740 handed out fliers with city councilors' contact information. They argued public safety was at risk because of the reductions.

The layoffs went through, but a federal grant allowed the city to refill those positions. That grant expires at the end of June. It's unclear whether the federal government will offer a two-year renewal, and if the city would even accept it.

A more colorful example occurred about a decade ago when firefighters campaigned in support of Orlando Delogu, who opposed shuttering two fire stations and laying off two dozen firefighters.

"Orlando Delogu would never let your safety be compromised," says a pamphlet made and distributed by the union. "Portland's firefighters and paramedics would not steer you wrong!"

In addition to distributing campaign literature, Delogu said firefighters picked him up at his home in an antique fire engine and drove him around town, touting his candidacy through a bullhorn while ringing the fire bell.

Delogu lost the election, but the fire stations never closed.

This story was updated at 12:05 p.m. on February 6, 2013 to correct the number of firefighters in Taunton, Mass., and the associated chart. Taunton has 120 firefighters, or 2.15 per 1,000 residents.

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:
rbillings@mainetoday.com
Twitter: @randybillings

 

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Additional Photos

20130103_NewFireChief
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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?

Yes

No

View Results