Portland Fire Department is large and costly, but not necessarily inefficient, 500-page study finds

Posted March 27, 2013, at 7:52 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A nearly 500-page report released Wednesday afternoon found that Maine’s largest city has a larger and more costly fire department than other comparable cities, but cautions the public not to conclude the staff is bloated as a result.

The department-wide audit took place over the course of three months. The resultant report studies every aspect of the organization and catalogues all department payroll, property and equipment.

Jerome LaMoria started work as Portland’s fire chief in early January, just two weeks before the review team from Maryland-based consulting firm Public Safety Solutions Inc. began conducting its research.

“The big nugget is that it’s a very big report. There’s a lot of information to it,” LaMoria told the BDN Wednesday evening. “We’re just now having the opportunity to sit down, study it, get to know it, and make some action items.”

The report recommends reorganizing the department’s chain of command to disperse the administrative workload and provide clear leadership for different groups within the organization, considering greater regional partnerships with other area departments, and revising procedures in an effort to cut down on what the consultants called “overtime expenditures [that] seem unusually high for a fire department the size of Portland’s.”

The report also compares the department staffing and cost levels with departments of other cities, and notes that Portland’s 2012 per capita fire department costs of $221.07 topped averages of $196.01 across 40 New England cities of various sizes, and $184.91 calculated using 45 U.S. cities with populations of between 50,000 and 99,999 residents.

The researchers used an approximate population of 69,000 for Portland in their study.

Portland’s ratio of firefighters per 1,000 residents also came out high under a similar comparison, with Maine’s largest city staffing 2.81 firefighters and emergency medical responders for every 1,000 people. An average of 51 New England cities of all sizes found 1.77 firefighters per 1,000 residents, while 95 U.S. cities within Portland’s 50,000-99,999 population range averaged out with a ratio of 1.52 firefighters per 1,000 residents.

But the report authors wrote that readers of the study should consider the comparisons “with caution,” and that a number of factors could contribute to high staffing and per capita costs without being signs of inefficiency.

“The report … identifies the fact that with our jetport, our working waterfront and island communities, Portland is an outlier,” LaMoria said.

The chief said the department’s wide range of diverse responsibilities demand a more specialized and larger staff, and added that not all fire departments cited in the statistics included full EMS staffs as Portland does under its department.

“It’s really important that people look at all the information in its totality when they’re reviewing this report,” he said.

The report commends the department for average response times on the mainland of three minutes and 26 seconds, as well as medical crisis team response times of four minutes and 26 seconds.

The study also targets department overtime expenditures, which reached more than $1.86 million in fiscal year 2012, and have been at totals greater than $1.49 million for four of the last five years.

“There seems to be the opinion that OT is limitless and that is the way to do things,” the report reads, in part.

The consultants recommend encouraging firefighters and rescuers to do training work on-duty, increasing reliance on mutual aid from other municipal fire departments instead of calling back Portland teams to long-burning fires, and adding a fifth medical crisis unit to the four currently in rotation, among other measures.

The report also recommends a reorganization of the department, cutting the deputy chief positions from six to four, and placing each of the deputy chiefs in charge of specific areas of the department — including training, fire prevention and EMS operations, among other oversight responsibilities. The changes would delegate authority from the chief’s currently overloaded desk, the consultants said, and would make chains of command more clear in a department they found “consistently inconsistent” in many management practices.

The consultants praised the department’s “leading edge medical treatment” on EMS calls — which represent the majority of the organization’s workload — and for its specialty response units, such as its Hazmat, Public Safety Communications and Confined Space teams.

Public Safety Solutions Inc. President Leslie Adams is scheduled to deliver the report’s findings to the city council on Monday. The city is also accepting public comments on the report through the city’s website.

“More than three decades have passed since the city conducted a review and assessment of the fire department and in that time the department’s role and responsibilities within the community have changed dramatically,” said City Manager Mark Rees in a statement Wednesday. “Not only does this study confirm that the city’s fire department provides quality service to the city, but it also identifies a number of opportunities to improve how we best respond to the community’s needs.”

The Portland Fire Department is made up of 229 uniformed employees — such as firefighters and officers — and five nonuniformed civilian employees. Preliminary figures indicate the department responded to 15,001 calls in 2012, with most — 11,189 — being medical calls.

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.

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