June 23, 2018
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Portland city councilors balk at recommendation to hire 40 more firefighters

Bangor Daily News | BDN
Bangor Daily News | BDN
A Portland Fire Department Ladder Truck is parked at the old North School building near the corner of Congress and India streets on Aug. 22, 2012. Firefighters responded to a fire alarm at the site and evacuated the building, only to discover that it was a case of someone mistaking a bed bug bomb for fire smoke.
By William Hall, The Forecaster

PORTLAND, Maine — The City Council took its first look Monday at a long-awaited audit of the Fire Department, but the 523-page report seemed to raise more questions than provide answers.

Public Safety Solutions, a Maryland-based consultant, began reviewing the department’s staffing and operations in early January. The consultant released its findings and recommendations to the city on March 27.

The $39,000 audit is the first top-to-bottom review of the department since the 1980s. Councilors called for the investigation last spring amid concerns about cost overruns. With an annual budget of about $16 million, the PFD spent $2 million on overtime during the 2012 fiscal year.

In Monday’s workshop, PSSI President Leslie Adams walked councilors through the report, which includes 169 recommendations. Among them are a proposed reorganization of the department’s management to create more time for administrative duties, rescheduling firefighter shifts, policy changes, and even renaming the department.

But the department’s staffing level was the focus of much of the discussion. The report recommends hiring 40 new firefighters, bringing the PFD’s total employment to 270.

“That’s not going to happen,” Councilor John Anton said. Instead, he said, he was looking for recommendations that would help the council and the department prioritize among competing goals.

Councilor Ed Suslovic was also skeptical of the staffing recommendation. Portland’s ratio of firefighters per capita is 3.5 per 1,000, he said — about double the ratio of comparable cities.

“What is it about Portland that is so unique, that requires us to have double the staffing?” he asked Adams. “That is the central question from which everything flows.”

But Adams dismissed the comparison of staffing ratios as a “red herring.”

“We know what [the PFD] has, and we saw no excesses … but we don’t know know what the comparables have. We don’t know what services they have to provide,” he said.

Although such ratios are used in evaluating police staffing, the work of fire departments is so diverse that the ratios aren’t meaningful, he said: “It’s not used as a decision-making factor.”

The detail of the report at times seemed to overwhelm councilors. Anton called it an “essentially impossible-to-digest document,” and Councilor Jill Duson said she wanted to rely on PFD and city staff to delve into the recommendations.

“I’m struggling to control my role in this process,” she said, adding that she’d like to see a timeline that would allow the council to check on progress stemming from the audit.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman echoed Duson, saying that there should be a clear separation of administrative and policy changes, with the council focusing on the latter.

Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria, who joined the PFD within days of the audit’s start, said he and his staff will review the report over the next 90 days, during which the public can also comment on it via the department’s website. An action plan will also be drawn up and vetted publicly, the chief said.

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