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February 1, 2013

20130103_NewFireChief
Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

New Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria

Portland fire chief defends size of staff – then recants

By Randy Billings
rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – After speaking with the mayor, Portland's new fire chief backed away Thursday from his comment in a television interview that he doesn't think the city has too many firefighters.

Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria made the comment while a consultant continued a top-down review of the fire department. The city is paying the consultant $39,000 to evaluate the department's management, staffing, operations, stations and equipment. A report is due in March.

LaMoria, who took over as chief on Jan. 3, was quoted Wednesday on WGME-TV defending the size of his staff.

"I'm very anxious to see the results of the study," he said in the on-camera interview. "I don't believe the fire department is overstaffed."

Several city councilors said Thursday that they will wait to see the consultant's report before making conclusions.

Mayor Michael Brennan said he didn't think anything of the chief's on-air comments when he watched Wednesday night. But he contacted LaMoria and City Manager Mark Rees on Thursday after being contacted by the press and others.

"I feel very comfortable with the fact that we're on the same page," Brennan said.

LaMoria said Thursday that he didn't mean to announce any conclusion about staff size in the TV interview.

"When I watched it, my heart sank a little bit," he said of the interview. "It's important people know that I have not drawn any conclusions about the staffing at the fire department."

LaMoria said his quote was in response to a question about whether the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram's comparison of fire department staffing in New England communities proved that Portland's department is overstaffed.

He said he meant to convey his opinion that staffing comparisons aren't the only factor, and that factors such as emergency medical service, geography and the airport also drive staffing.

The Press Herald/Telegram analysis, published Sunday, pointed out that Portland has more firefighters than any other New England community with a population of 40,000 to 100,000.

Portland's department is significantly larger than other departments on a per-capita basis, a standard used to compare fire departments nationwide.

Portland, with a population of 66,194, has 234 firefighters. That's 3.54 per 1,000 residents -- more than any of the 45 comparably sized communities surveyed by the newspaper.

LaMoria told WGME that doesn't necessarily mean the fire department is overstaffed.

The article prompted a backlash from firefighters, in comments on the newspaper's website and letters to the editor.

"I would hope everyone is keeping an open mind and not prejudging the facts," said City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chairs the council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee.

Other city councilors, who approved spending $39,000 for the independent review last year -- before LaMoria was hired -- gave the new chief the benefit of the doubt.

"I respect the fact that councilors have opinions and the fire chief has opinions," said Councilor David Marshall, "but what we're really looking for is a neutral third party's opinion."

Councilor Jill Duson, who serves on the public safety and finance committees, said the council will review the report, consider feedback from the city's staff and direct the city manager to make any necessary changes.

"I expect in a committee meeting I will have the opportunity to not only hear the fire chief's position, but ask him questions about how he reached that position," Duson said. "Hopefully he will be frank and forthcoming with us."

Councilor John Coyne said that in the TV interview, LaMoria was likely sharing his initial impression -- not his conclusion -- about the department. He said he will be watching how the chief responds to the report's recommendations, whatever they may be.

"The proof is when the report comes out; I'll really be interested to see what his flexibility is," Coyne said. "The fact that he's got an opinion doesn't bother me. I'm kind of glad that he does and he's able to stand up for himself and his department."

 

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings





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