March 28, 2013

Overtime 'solution' raises new questions in Portland

Figures showing that new firefighter jobs could be costlier than paying $1.8 million in OT mystify city councilors.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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A debate has arisen over whether hiring 40 firefighters – as a consultant recommended – would save the city the $1.8 million it spent on overtime in 2012, or actually cost it more.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

A debate has arisen over whether hiring 40 firefighters would save the city the $1.8 million it spent on overtime last year, or actually cost it more.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

The staffing formula used by the consultant accounts for "off-the-floor" time -- including sick time, vacations, training and injuries -- determined to average 628 hours a year in Portland.

That means 5.62 employees are needed to staff one position on a 24-hour basis, the report says.

Coupled with the need to increase staffing for each piece of equipment, the total force should be 269 people, the consultant concludes.

John Brooks, president of the firefighters union, said this is the first time he has seen such a staffing formula.

However, he said the report shows that the city is getting good service for the cost. While Portland's staffing per capita is above average, the per capita costs of the department are within a common industry standard.

"It sounds to me the city is getting a good deal," Brooks said. "That points toward efficiency."

The report commends the department's emergency medical services, noting that 74 percent of the department's 15,000 calls for service in 2012 were EMS-related. The city's EMS budget is expected to produce a surplus of $600,000, the report says.

It is common for Portland to send both a fire truck and an ambulance to an EMS call; the consultant recommends sending fire trucks only for the most severe cases.

The report notes a "perceived and real animosity" between ambulance and fire engine crews, which dates back to an incomplete merger of the groups in 1997.

While most of the work in the department is related to EMS, a perception remains that ambulance workers are held in lower regard than firefighters, even though they are trained in fire suppression.

Suslovic said the report doesn't fully examine alternative models for EMS service. He said comparable cities are moving toward contracting with private providers or hospitals, to provide quality service with fewer staff members.

"If that's 80 percent of the Fire Department's workload, to me that's a pretty central issue to examine," he said.

Brooks and Suslovic rarely agree on issues relating to Fire Department staffing, but they agree on one point: The consultant must be prepared to explain his recommendations in greater detail than the report does.

"He's got to back up a lot of things," Brooks said.

 

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

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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Today's poll: Portland firefighters

Should Portland hire more firefighters?

Yes

No

View Results