Is the Portland Fire Department overstaffed?

It’s a complicated question, but the right one for the city to be asking. For years, people have wondered whether the city still needed the staffing level it has maintained for decades while demands on the department have changed.

Finally, the City Council commissioned a study to evaluate the department and the city’s needs. That report is not expected to be complete until later this year, but an investigation by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram published Jan. 27 indicates that the city is right to follow this line of inquiry.

The report compared Portland to 44 other communities around New England, with similar populations and aging housing stock.

It found that Portland is an outlier in the region, with the highest ratio of firefighters per 1,000 residents.

This was true of cities with smaller and more dispersed development as well as ones that were larger and those more densely developed. No other city even came close.

What size should the Portland Fire Department be? The right size. Neither too small nor too big. Scarce tax dollars should be spent as carefully as possible, and there is no city service that should not be given this level of scrutiny.

The newspaper’s investigation should not be the last word. The $39,000 top-to-bottom survey conducted by an outside agency should dig into the complexities of the departments and compare them by more than just population. Responsibilities unique to Portland, such as the harbor and the airport, should be factored into the analysis.

In the end, it’s a political question for taxpayers and their elected representatives.

Data from other cities will help make sure that discussion will be based on solid information.

Asking these questions is not a critique of the department or the men and women who serve on it.

Firefighters do an important job, and we all sleep better at night knowing that there are highly trained people ready to run into danger.

But that makes this a sensitive political issue and one that has been avoided for too long.

The council is right to push the question forward now. It’s time the city gets some answers.