PORTLAND, Maine — Portland’s new fire chief is facing a full-blown review of his department just two weeks into the job, and said Thursday he hopes the audit will help the group escape the shadow of recent budget overruns, huge overtime payments and a pair of controversial fireboat accidents.
Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria started work in Portland on Jan. 3, picked by City Manager Mark Rees as the permanent replacement for the retiring Frederick LaMontagne after an 11-month nationwide search.
This week, researchers from the Maryland-based Public Safety Solutions Inc. launched their four-month investigation of the department — called in by the City Council during last spring’s budget discussions to give Portland’s fire and rescue crews their first thorough review since the 1980s.
The department goes under the microscope as it celebrates some major strides forward — rescuers tripled their success rate saving the lives of cardiac arrest patients last year — and continues to be nagged by the memory of two embarrassing and expensive fireboat accidents.
On Thursday, LaMoria sat down with the Bangor Daily News for an interview about his first days on the job and the potentially transformative audit now underway. He said one of his top goals is to control the department’s annual overtime spending, which in the most recent completed fiscal year topped $2 million.
“I can certainly take a look at [the review] from an outside point of view,” said LaMoria. “Some of the weaknesses won’t [put me on the] defensive.”
The new chief said he realizes the department’s marine division has suffered a black eye in recent years, as the city’s fireboat has been in two costly accidents since 2009, the first responding to a call near Jewell Island in November of that year. In the second incident, the boat hit an unidentified underwater object while on an October 2011 training exercise in which two firefighters were joined by 12 family members and friends, drawing criticism that the fireboat was being improperly used for recreation.
An arbitrator brought in to resolve a dispute between the city and Local 740 of the union International Association of Firefighters about disciplinary actions against the firefighters involved in the 2011 incident ruled this month that it was accidental — not necessarily recklessness — and reduced the suspensions of the two men.
The city announced that the second crash cost $54,000 in boat repairs, and that the 2009 accident cost the city approximately $90,000. The Portland Press Herald reported Thursday that the final repair cost for the first accident in fact added up to more than $173,000.
LaMoria said he and Rees have asked the consultants to make the department’s marine division, which includes its fireboat, a priority.
“They will look at those [accidents] and they’ll also look at what the response was, and will be able to say whether that was enough or not enough,” LaMoria said.
In the aftermath of the second incident, the city implemented several policy changes, including the restriction of fireboat access to civilians and clearer requirements for the addition of a third crewmember for certain exercises.
“There isn’t anybody in the Portland Fire Department who doesn’t regret those incidents,” LaMoria said. “We look forward to regaining some trust and credibility in that division. So much energy and, frankly, taxpayer dollars have been expended on those incidents. We’ve learned from them, we’ve made changes and we’re moving forward.”
In addition to a study of the marine division, the consultants will evaluate the department’s management structure, capabilities, response times, equipment adequacy and cost efficiencies, among other things.
LaMoria said the first complaint he began to hear when he arrived in Portland was not about the fireboat, however, but the department’s finances.
“Right off the bat it was the budget and how much money is spent on overtime,” he said. “There’s nothing I want more than to bring the department in under its budget.”
The department is made up of 237 full-time employees, including 63 ranking officers and 172 firefighters/emergency medical responders. Preliminary figures indicate the department responded to 15,001 calls in 2012, with most — 11,189 — being medical calls. The city has seven mainland fire stations, one air rescue station, and four fire stations on Casco Bay islands manned by volunteers.
Portland’s Fire Department is less than a third of the size of the Maryland department in which LaMoria spent 25 years, the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department, where he served a stint as acting deputy chief of emergency operations.
The Portland department’s fiscal year 2013 budget is around $16 million.
What caught the city council’s attention during last spring’s budget deliberations was the fact that the department spent just less than $13.8 million on payroll in fiscal year 2012, much more than the $13.3 million the city had budgeted for the 12-month stretch. That cost overrun was traced back to $2 million in overtime payroll expenditures during that year.
Overall, the department’s 2012 expenditures neared $15.8 million, topping the $15.2 million the council had approved for the year, although revenues, thanks in part to grants received by the department, were also higher.
LaMoria said the PSSI investigators will pore over payroll records and staffing levels in their research, but urged members of the public to keep an open mind about the department’s recent history while awaiting the consultants’ report.
He said overtime costs can skyrocket during waves of retirements and departures, as the remaining firefighters must work longer hours and more often to cover the hours of the vacant positions. LaMoria said sometimes it’s more cost effective to pay some firefighters overtime than to hire more of them. City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said 12 full-time fire department positions were vacated in the past year.
“We look at overtime like it’s bad and a sign of poor management, but that’s not always the case,” he said.
LaMoria also said Portland has a robust force because the city faces some fire threats that many other similarly sized cities don’t, such as an international jetport, a busy harbor, island constituents and proximity to an oil pipeline.
“A snapshot of the geography and a snapshot of the population don’t tell the whole story,” he said. “There are a number of factors that can affect the hazard level here.”
The department is coming into 2013 with some significant recent victories under its belt, as well. Most visible was the department’s implementation of new medical response policies aimed at better treating cardiac arrest victims.
By sending more personnel to each call and treating the patients on scene — instead of pausing treatment to prepare them for transportation to the hospital and then subjecting them to what is sometimes a bumpy ambulance ride — the department increased its success rate saving the lives of cardiac arrest victims from 6 percent to 17 percent last year.
LaMoria said he expects the review to ways to build on successes like that as well.
“What I’m expecting is a very professional and thorough review of everything we do,” he said.