September 26, 2012

Portland fire department takes heat for $2 million in overtime

A consultant will be hired to figure out why the department spends so much on overtime — more than twice any other city department.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – The city Tuesday began the process of hiring a consultant to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the fire department.

click image to enlarge

In this November 2009 file photo, Tim Nangle, a paramedic fireman with the Portland Fire Department, operates a machine outside the city's central fire station that helps disinfect emergency vehicles. The fire department has come under scrutiny over its overtime spending, which last year exceeded $2 million, by far the most of any city department.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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The move comes amid growing concern about the department's overtime spending, which last year exceeded $2 million, by far the most of any city department. It also follows two accidents involving the fire boat, which caused a total of $128,000 in damage.

The request for proposals, sent to eight consultants, says the city wants to examine the fire department's organization, policies, staffing, equipment and $16 million budget. It will also analyze the potential for a more regional approach, look at fire station locations and examine whether fire trucks are needed for all emergency calls.

"Potentially, these recommendations could be significant in terms of restructuring (and) reorganizing," said City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who leads the council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee. "My expectations are significant. I'm not looking for a rubber stamp."

City Manager Mark Rees said he hopes the review will be completed in time for next year's budgeting process.

The Portland Fire Department employs 237 people, including a chief, six deputy chiefs and an executive assistant. The department maintains seven fire stations on the mainland and four island-based stations operated by volunteers.

The consultant will be asked to provide a staffing plan and figure out why the department spends so much money on overtime -- $2.07 million in 2011, more than twice the $941,200 spent on overtime for police officers.

Acting Fire Chief Stephen Smith, through his assistant, declined to speak with a reporter and referred all inquiries to city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

Firefighters are typically scheduled for a 42-hour week and are eligible for overtime if they go over their scheduled hours, Clegg said. Firefighters typically work two 24-hour shifts every eight days, she said.

City Councilor John Anton, who lead's the Finance Committee, said tight budgets are forcing the city to re-evaluate its spending, which runs about $200 million a year.

"The fire department is an area of concern," Anton said. "It's one of the biggest budget drivers."

The department suffered public relations setbacks with two accidents involving its $3.2 million fireboat. The most recent, last October, occurred while friends and families of firefighters were on board. After the accident, Rees required the department to get prior approval for non-emergency use of the fireboat, which is routinely used to transport city staff, equipment and elected officials to the islands to conduct business.

Ken Willette, a manager with the National Fire Protection Association, said his group does not make staffing suggestions but instead recommends that it should take no longer that six minutes, including four minutes of travel time, for a crew to respond to a fire call.

Willette also said the number of firefighters who respond to medical calls has risen over the past 10 years, though he didn't have figures available.

Mayor Michael Brennan said he wants to make sure the fire department's budget reflects Portland's needs.

"There's been a huge shift away from firefighters responding to actual fires themselves," Brennan said. "The vast majority of calls now are Medcu (paramedic rescue) and medical related. I think it's important to see if we have the right mix or the right balance between our staffing patterns on firefighting and Medcu and health responding."

Rees said he had originally planned to begin the review after bringing on a new fire to chief to replace Fred LaMontagne, who retired this spring. That process was delayed when the city's top pick withdrew for personal reasons, prompting the city to reopen the national search. The city is still narrowing candidates and aims to hire a chief in November, Clegg said.

Consultants have until Oct. 16 to submit their proposals to the city. Rees said it would take two to four weeks to select a consultant. The firm must submit its full report by March 30.

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

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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