February 1, 2013

Maine Voices: Review of Portland Fire Department will show money well spent

Coverage of staffing levels offers misleading figures about men and women dedicated to public safety.

By JOHN BROOKS

Portland Firefighters Local 740 fully embraces the ongoing examination of the Portland Fire Department.

Though we welcome the increased interest in fire department operations from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, we are concerned that its coverage serves to confuse at a time when clarity is needed ("Is the Portland Fire Department overstaffed?" Jan. 27) .

At the request of city officials, PSSI Public Safety Systems Inc. is currently conducting a thorough review of the fire department, examining issues such as staffing levels, work schedules and equipment.

Firefighters welcome this important review because we believe it will reveal a fire department that is well-respected, effective and worth every penny.

We believe the primary question posed by the Telegram articles -- "Why is the Portland Fire Department so large?" -- will be flipped on its head in the minds of residents in other communities. Many citizens and businesses across New England will begin asking, "Why can't our fire department be more like the Portland Fire Department?"

The size and composition of the Portland Fire Department should not be a political issue, as the Press Herald suggests in an editorial follow-up to the articles.

This is a public safety issue. A structure fire can double in size in one minute. Minutes can mean the difference between life and death when someone is in cardiac arrest.

Quite simply, the residents, businesses and visitors of Portland are safer because the city has an agile, well-resourced fire department.

The Telegram articles set out to paint the Portland Fire Department as too big by attempting a simple apples-to-apples comparison between Portland and other cities of similar sizes.

In doing this, the paper unfortunately added confusion and inaccuracy to an already complicated issue.

Portland is a much bigger city than the U.S. Census numbers used by the reporter suggest. Portland is a major New England hub for both business and entertainment, which means its daytime population swells from 66,194 actual residents to more than 120,000 commuters and other visitors, all of whom count on the city for public safety.

What's more, the per capita fire department personnel figure the reporter uses -- 3.54 firefighters per 1,000 residents -- is highly misleading.

To reach that figure, the reporter adds non-line personnel such as secretaries to the count.

A true measure of front-line fire personnel places the Portland Fire Department squarely in the norm.

The reality is that the Portland Fire Department maintains a level of staffing that approaches but does not actually reach levels recommended by the National Fire Protection Association.

If Portland is an outlier in staffing, that means fire departments in like-sized cities are dangerously understaffed, and that should raise alarms bells for residents in those communities.

The articles called into question the use of 24-hour shifts in the fire department.

Fire departments across the country must pick the shift schedule that works most effectively for their staffs and the communities they serve. More fire departments are switching to the 24-hour shift schedule because it is the most effective way to provide 24-7 fire protection with firefighters who are well-rested and ready to respond quickly to any emergency.

The articles also focused on the high number of EMS responses made by the Portland Fire Department and the use of fire trucks in those responses.

This is common in cities of comparable sizes and the Portland Fire Department's speed and effectiveness in dealing with medical emergencies speaks for itself.

The truth is the men and women who work for the Portland Fire Department are much more than numbers on a page. They are much more than line items on a budget to be added or crossed out depending on the political whims of local elected officials.

These people did not join the fire service to enrich themselves.

Portland firefighters have dedicated their careers to firefighting because they believe in public service and are willing to put their lives on the line to keep Portland's residents, businesses and visitors safe.

Public safety must be considered a cornerstone of a successful and prosperous community.

We welcome the ongoing review of the Portland Fire Department because we believe the results will leave our city feeling not just safe, but proud.

John Brooks is president of Portland Firefighters Local 740.

 

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