May 15, 2013

Update on Portland fire staffing has 'no magic pill'

But the city's fire chief says he expects to have a plan in August to implement changes.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Midway through a review of a consultant's recommendations to improve the fire department's operations and services, Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria told city councilors Tuesday that the report contains a lot of information but no "magic pill" or "secret door that will leads us to some instant gratification."

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Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria

Download and read the Portland Fire Department Performance and Management Study.

LaMoria updated the City Council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee on efforts to implement parts of the report, including installing smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in the fire stations.

LaMoria said the department's 90-day review of the report will be finished by July 1. He expects to report back in August or September with a plan to implement some of the recommendations, such as an administrative reorganization and updated polices.

Public Safety Solutions Inc. of Maryland was paid $39,000 for its review of the department, which has a $16 million budget this year.

The 500-page report, first presented to the council on April 1, contains nearly 170 recommendations, including 13 to rein in overtime pay.

Councilor Edward Suslovic, the committee chair, appeared more intent on questioning what isn't in the report, particularly about staffing. That line of questioning didn't sit well with his colleagues.

Public Safety Solutions reported that Portland employs 2.81 firefighters per 1,000 residents, not including staffing for the fireboat and the airport. That's well above the average of 1.77 per capita in 51 other New England communities.

The Portland Press Herald found that Portland employs 3.54 firefighters per 1,000 residents, based on overall employment and the 2010 census. That was the highest rate among 50 communities surveyed.

Suslovic said he has been seeking an explanation for more than a year about what makes Portland unique to require that staffing level. "That's quite a gap," he said.

Despite the department's relatively large staff, overtime pay for firefighters has topped $1.2 million in each of the past eight years, including $1.8 million last year.

To address overtime and maintain the current equipment and stations, the consultant's report recommends the city use a staffing formula that could lead to the hiring of at least 40 more firefighters.

Consultant Les Adams said in a memo to the committee that overall staffing is driven by service levels that surpass those in the 200 departments his team members have studied over the last 30 years.

The services include pre-hospital emergency medical services transport, EMS quality assurance, dispatch quality assurance, airport services and staffing, marine services and staffing, island fire and staffing, fire prevention, heavy rescue, and regional/city hazardous materials response capabilities.

"It is likely that, other than the city of Boston, no other city in the northern part of the U.S. north of New York City, is called upon to provide such a broad range of very important fire and EMS-related services," Adams wrote.

LaMoria noted that firefighters must protect a busy cruise port, year-round island communities and millions of tourists who come to the city.

Staffing and service levels are a decision for local policymakers, but residents have come to "expect and cherish" the services in Portland, said LaMoria, who started his job as fire chief Jan. 3. "Just to merely look at the number of firefighters doesn't give you a clear picture of what that means."

Suslovic pressed the issue with LaMoria and Deputy City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian, saying police have the same obligations, with staffing that is more in line with comparable cities.

That prompted Councilor John Coyne, who is usually reserved, to interject.

"It seems like you're coming down a little hard on the fire department," said Coyne, suggesting that management and staffing decisions are best left to the staff.

When Suslovic suggested that difficult budget decisions lie ahead, Coyne countered that finding savings in fire department staffing isn't the answer.

"Reducing (staffing) from what we have right now is not appropriate and I don't think it will be well received," he said.

Councilor Jill Duson, who originally questioned having LaMoria report to the committee before his 90-day review was complete, suggested Suslovic let the staff finish its review and management plan.

"I would hope this question would be succinctly addressed in context of the management implementation plan," Duson said.

 

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

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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