PORTLAND, Maine — A Portland Fire Department unit specializing in battling blazes in boxed-in spaces has also diversified the force’s revenue streams.
The city’s Rescue 1 team, which receives training to work in environments with limited escape routes, is now sought after by businesses who need that expertise, Portland spokeswoman Nicole Clegg told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday.
The unit is unusually qualified to fight fires in places the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration defines as “confined spaces,” meaning spaces with restricted entries and exits but that are large enough for employees to occasionally access for temporary jobs such as maintenance work.
Some examples are silos, storage bins, vaults and pits. Companies with complex sewer infrastructures, distilleries or dairy processing equipment, for example, may be legally required to have a rescue team on standby to respond to fires or trapped employees in those environments, Clegg said, and Rescue 1 can be contracted to play that role.
In addition to a $63,000 contract with nonprofit waste disposal firm ecomaine, the city is in negotiations with other area companies that could generate $150,000 in additional revenue, she said.
“During the budget process, [ Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria] discussed the specialized training the members of Rescue 1 had received to be certified as a Confined Space Rescue Team and the revenue the department is able to generate through contracts with businesses who are legally required to have a team available to respond to an event or be on standby,” Clegg wrote in an email. “The budget projected that funds generated through these contracts would offset the labor costs associated with staffing Rescue 1.”
The latest example of the unit attracting new revenue is a federal grant award of more than $1.1 million to fund the 12 positions on the team, according to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. That means the contract revenue drawn by the unit can be used to offset other department expenditures.
Clegg also said that with the budget relief provided by the grant money, the department will have the flexibility to seek more independent contracts.
Pingree announced the grant award — of $1,111,188 from the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant program — late Wednesday.
The new Rescue 1 revenues help reduce budget pressure at the department, which has been under scrutiny in recent months because of its 2012 overtime payments and staffing levels. A three-month audit of the department, the first such review in decades, recommended hiring 41 new firefighters — bringing the city’s total to 270 — to help reduce the need for overtime.
“I’m glad the Portland Fire Department will be able to meet its staffing needs without adding an extra burden on local taxpayers,” said Pingree in a Wednesday statement. “The highly trained team this grant supports is critical to protecting Portland residents and businesses in especially unique and challenging emergencies.”
This marks the second time the department will benefit from SAFER funds to support the specialized unit. According to Clegg, the city first received funds in fiscal year 2010 to help cover the jobs until the current year.
The audit report made note of the department’s high overtime expenditures in recent years, which reached $1.86 million in 2012 and topped $1.49 million in four of the last five years.
The suggestion to hire 41 more firefighters, however, was met with skepticism by some city officials, who focused on the study’s other finding that Portland has a much higher ratio of firefighters to residents — 2.81 per 1,000 residents — than most other cities its size.
The study found that 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, in comparison. However, study authors from consultant Public Safety Solutions Inc. urged “caution” in comparing the statistics, noting that Portland is a somewhat special case because of its diverse landscape — which includes an international jetport, working waterfront and island communities — that demands a number of different specialized responders.
“[This grant] announcement is welcome news not only for the financial relief it will provide the city this year, but also for the opportunity it presents the fire department in their continuing effort to provide highly skilled and specialized emergency response to the region,” said City Manager Mark Rees in a Wednesday statement.