Changes in the works at Portland Fire Department

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PORTLAND — The Fire Department is preparing to roll out a series of organizational and procedural changes in response to a consultant’s study conducted earlier this year.

Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria on Friday said the department will begin phasing in the changes by the end of the summer. While he wouldn’t discuss details, the chief said they will increase the department’s capacity for emergency medical service, fire prevention, and services for island residents.

Another focus will be the department’s staffing – an issue that has attracted scrutiny from the City Council and the public. In fact, the council’s concerns about overtime wages paid to firefighters in 2012 prompted the $39,000 audit by Maryland-based consultant Public Safety Solutions.

PSS began reviewing the department’s staffing and operations in January, and released findings to the city on March 27 in a 523-page report.

The report includes 169 recommendations. Among them are proposals to reorganize the department’s management, reschedule firefighter shifts, overhaul policies, and even rename the department.

“A lot of the report confirmed what many in our organization already realized,” LaMoria said.

The report also recommends hiring 41 new firefighters in order to reduce overtime, bringing the PFD’s total employment to 270. That suggestion has already been scorned by City Councilors Ed Suslovic and John Anton.

Portland’s ratio of fire personnel per capita is 3.5 per 1,000, according to Suslovic – about double the ratio of comparable cities. “We’re out of whack,” he said last month.

Meanwhile, the department has been mulling the recommendations, but isn’t ready yet to announce any changes in staffing.

LaMoria said a planned 90-day review of the audit has been completed, and internal focus groups are now developing specific responses.

“(The audit) gives us a lot of information to develop a multi-year plan that will allow us to correct deficiencies and build on our strengths,” LaMoria said. “It will allow us to be less reactive and to be more proactive.”

The first phase of changes will be followed by a second, year-long phase, and a final phase of major changes over the next three to five years, the chief said.

Some of the phase-one changes may result in improvements to the PFD marine operations, another area that has been under scrutiny in the wake of two much-publicized accidents involving the city’s fire boat. 

On Jan. 8, an arbitrator reduced the suspensions of two firefighters who were operating The City of Portland IV when it was damaged in an October 2011 accident. The decision renewed controversy about the way the city handled the accident – and brought back memories of an accident in November 2009.

LaMoria said the phase-one plan calls for better training of the fireboat’s three-person crews.

“Basically, we were asking (fire boat staff) to do more than they were ready to do,” he said.

Improvements such as that will “run the gamut” of the PFD, LaMoria said. He said he expects some of them to be resisted by firefighters.

“Anytime you interject change, some people are going to feel uncomfortable,” he said. “But most in the department are eager for change, and recognize that it’s coming. They’ll rise to the occasion.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

Sidebar Elements

Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria

Grant continues funding for PFD special-hazards response

PORTLAND — The Fire Department has received a federal grant of more than $1.1 million to continue funding the department’s special-hazards response team, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, announced July 24.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will pay for a dozen firefighter positions on the Rescue 1 apparatus, which responds to confined-space fires, hazardous material spills, and other special emergencies.

The department received a similar grant in 2010.

“This is a huge help,” Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said. “It allows us to expand our confined-space program, and just represents a fantastic opportunity.”

Pingree said she is glad the department will be able to meet its staffing needs without placing an extra burden on local taxpayers.

“The highly trained team this grant supports is critical to protecting Portland residents and businesses in especially unique and challenging emergencies,” she said.

— William Hall