Thursday, May 23, 2013
PORTLAND — City Manager Mark Rees has chosen a top fire administrator from Maryland to lead the Portland Fire Department at a time when it is under increasing pressure to change that way it provides services.
Rees announced Tuesday that he has nominated Jerome La-Moria, 50, who until last year was one of three deputy fire chiefs for the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department, which serves nearly 1 million people.
In Portland, LaMoria would oversee one of the city's largest departments, with an annual budget of $16 million and 234 employees.
LaMoria will start work on Jan. 3 if his nomination is confirmed by the City Council on Dec. 17. He would earn $95,000 a year.
Rees said LaMoria has the right skills to manage a department in transition.
"We have to make sure that the resources are allocated to the department in a way that reflects reality," Rees said.
The Portland Fire Department faces pressure to make structural changes in response to a shifting workload.
Because of new fire safety requirements and improvements in building construction, the department is increasingly focused on emergency medical calls rather than fire calls, Rees said, and that trend will continue.
Rees is expected to announce Wednesday or Thursday the consulting firm that will review the department's management and operations structure. It will be the first such review in at least 20 years.
The firm is expected to present its findings in March, in time for Rees and the City Council to make changes to the fire department budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
LaMoria, who for the past year has served as the training and exercise coordinator for the Prince George's County Office of Homeland Security, said the report will help Portland establish a strategic plan for the department for the next 10 years.
He said it's important that he hears from stakeholders including public health services, hospitals, nursing homes, the city's Health and Human Services Department, the City Council and the union that represents firefighters, Local 740 of the International Association of Firefighters.
He said that he was involved in a similar effort in Maryland, and that fire departments across the nation are facing the same issues.
He said an outside review of the department will enable city officials to take a critical look at all hazards facing the city and provide ideas for making adjustments to service levels.
Marc Bashoor, fire chief of Prince Georges County, described LaMoria as an "inclusive leader."
"He likes to bring everybody to the table to make decisions and make sure everybody is on the same page," he said.
City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, said that selecting the right fire chief is critical now because the department must be reorganized and modernized.
Suslovic has been critical of the department's staffing levels, which he said are far greater than those in cities of similar size.
"We need someone who is willing ask the tough questions and to have the courage to go where the answers take us," Suslovic said.
One issue, he said, is the manpower reserved for the city's fireboat. More than two-thirds of the boat's trips in 2010 were for non-emergency calls.
The boat sustained nearly $60,000 worth of damage when it hit an underwater object off Fort Gorges on Oct. 15, 2011, while carrying 12 "guests" on what the city has called a training exercise.
The firefighters' union has appealed the discipline meted out to a Portland fire captain and a firefighter.
John Brooks, president of Local 740, said he looks forward to working with LaMoria. He said the department could use some "fresh ideas," although it is running fine just as it is.
"I don't think he was hired to make changes," he said of LaMoria.
Portland firefighters don't have to worry about LaMoria being the city's "hatchet man," said Christian Wargo, vice president of the Prince George's County Firefighters and Paramedics Association.
"Jerry is for the guys," he said. "I worked for Jerry as a firefighter, as a lieutenant and as a captain. I wold work for Jerry anytime, anywhere and any place. He's one of the best leaders that I have ever been around."
LaMoria would replace Fred LaMontagne, who retired in March.
Rees came close to hiring a replacement this summer, but the top candidate backed out for personal reasons, Rees said. The city then re-advertised the position.
When the City Council votes on LaMoria, councilors won't have any information about him other than his resume, Suslovic said, so the council can do little but "rubber stamp" the nomination.
Suslovic said he would like to see the council hold public hearings on nominations of department heads.
Mayor Michael Brennan said he doesn't see any need to change the system. He said Rees has shown excellent judgment in previous hires, such as Jeff Levine, who heads the city's planning department, and Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.
LaMoria, who grew up in Vermont, said he wants to return to New England. He said he and his wife, Maureen LaMoria, enjoying kayaking and hiking.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6368 or at: