PORTLAND — In less than a month, the Fire Department is due to present an action plan in response to an external audit earlier this year of its staffing and operations.
No one will be reading the plan with greater interest than City Councilor Ed Suslovic.
Suslovic, the District 3 councilor who chairs the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, led the call for the audit last year amid concerns about department cost overruns. With an annual budget of about $16 million, the PFD spent nearly $2 million on overtime during the 2012 fiscal year.
The $39,000 audit, by Maryland-based consultant Public Safety Solutions, was the first top-to-bottom review of the department since the 1980s.
On March 27, PSS released its findings to the city in a 523-page report. It makes 169 recommendations, including 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 was the focus of much scrutiny. In order to minimize overtime, the report recommends hiring 41 new firefighters, bringing the total to 270.
Suslovic is skeptical of the staffing recommendation. Portland’s ratio of fire personnel per capita is already 3.5 per 1,000, he said – about double the ratio of comparable cities.
Indeed, the audit report itself notes that the Portland’s staffing ratio is higher than those of other similar cities. For example, the ratio of uniformed PFD personnel per 1,000 residents is 2.81, according to the report, while the average ratio of 51 cities in New England is 1.77.
But the report also “urges caution” in interpreting those comparisons.
Suslovic, however, feels the numbers are telling. “We’re out of whack,” he said last week.
PSS President Leslie Adams and Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria have both said that Portland has unique firefighting challenges that make comparisons only marginally useful.
But the same logic applies to other cities, Suslovic argues.
“For example, we have an airport, and we have islands, but on the other hand, we don’t have blocks and blocks of decrepit buildings” which pose extra fire risks in other cities, he said.
In addition, he noted, Portland employs 229 uniformed fire personnel, compared to the Police Department’s 160 officers.
“We’re one of the only cities with Fire Department staffing significantly higher than the Police Department’s,” he said.
The city of Nashua, N.H., for example, employs 169 police officers and 176 sworn fire personnel, according to the most recent data available.
But regardless of how the numbers are crunched and compared, Suslovic said, the most important outcome of the audit should be a plan that is willing to embrace change.
“With budgets as tight as they are, we can’t afford sacred cows,” he said. “Everyone has to evolve … we have to be asking these questions.
“I think by re-orienting our thinking, we can make Portland even safer. Otherwise, we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”