- Police Beat
- The Forecaster
PORTLAND — The City Council Monday rejected a proposal by Mayor Ethan Strimling to add $400,000 to the municipal budget to cover the cost of hiring nine new firefighters.
The 6-3 vote to decommission Engine 1 came after several firefighters urged councilors to restore funding for the Munjoy Hill unit, arguing that retiring the truck would only make their jobs more dangerous and more challenging.
They were joined by a chorus of concerned residents, who said without Engine 1 the entire city would be at risk.
Strimling argued adding the firefighters would give the Fire Department more flexibility and a chance to keep Engine 1 in service. But Fire Chief Keith Gautreau disagreed, saying even if the council added funding for more firefighters, it wouldn’t save Engine 1.
All 12 of the firefighters now manning the truck will be kept on the payroll, but will be reassigned to help reduce the need for overtime shifts and to provide administrative assistance in the chief’s office.
The Munjoy Hill fire station will remain open, with one ambulance and one fire truck still in service and five personnel per shift, according to Gautreau.
But many on Monday said that’s simply not good enough.
Firefighter Chris Vail, who campaigned unsuccessfully for mayor in the past, said public safety should be the council’s top priority.
“We don’t need political spin,” Vail said while arguing that homes and lives would be at risk without Engine 1 in service.
Gautreau said response times would not be “significantly impacted” by losing the fire truck and the Fire Department would still be well within national guidelines for responding to a call even without Engine 1.
But Vail said that argument doesn’t “pass the straight face test;” with fewer resources covering the same area there would absolutely be a negative impact on response times, he claimed.
John Hardy, captain of Ladder 1, which is also stationed at Munjoy Hill, said the hill and India Street neighborhoods are becoming densely populated as the city experiences “immense growth.”
He called it “incredibly concerning” to take Engine 1 out of service and said it would affect not just Munjoy Hill but the entire city, noting the truck provided valuable service at a recent fire in East Deering.
Hardy also argued that the Fire Department needs to have the “staffing levels and apparatus available to make good stops” and the council has a responsibility to “fund the needs of the department.”
Another firefighter, Chris Pirone, said “We make life safety choices every shift and less resources will make the job more challenging.” Taking Engine 1 out of service “makes our jobs more dangerous,” he added.
Resident Tae Chong said eliminating “20 percent of the our firefighting capacity is an unacceptable proposal.” He said Portland is experiencing exponential growth and many of the same conditions exist now as during the great fire of 1866, which left 10,000 Portlanders homeless.
Chong said older wooden structures, a dense population and inadequate fire coverage service could lead to the same result today as it did 153 years ago.
And resident Charles Mugabe said it comes down to one simple concept: effective emergency response requires a presence.
In anticipation of Monday’s council meeting, members of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization and the local firefighters’ union held a press conference on May 17 in front of the fire station.
Jay Norris, president of the neighborhood group, argued that all people wanted was to keep Engine 1 in place. “We want to keep it right where it is now,” he said. “This is not a neighborhood issue, it’s a city-wide issue.”
He also questioned how city leaders could justify other expenses, but not keep the fire truck. “We need to ensure our first responders are supplied with what they need” to do the job, Norris said.
Also speaking at Friday’s press conference was Chris Thomson, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 740.
He argued that for the Fire Department to meet its mission, firefighters and apparatus “must get where they’re going in a timely fashion.” His main concern, Thomson said, is that cutting Engine 1 means other emergency aid will be “too far away for the public’s safety.”
In a letter sent to city councilors in advance of Monday’s meeting, Norris also said “we have little doubt, that during a large blaze in the early hours of Jan. 2, 2017, our community would likely have lost three residential buildings had it not been for the close proximity and reaction of the Munjoy Hill engine company and station staff.”
He also noted that both the other nearby fire engines were on calls at the time of the incident.
“Our city has a long and tragic history with fire … (and) whatever the costs may be, we must keep all of our fire stations prepared at all times. They must be ready, fully staffed and operational,” Norris said in his letter.
But in voting against the extra funding for the Fire Department Monday, Councilor Nick Mavodones, who also chairs the council’s Finance Committee, said, “I understand the concerns about one less piece of apparatus, but I’m confident (the Fire Department) can still get the job done.”
Jay Norris, who heads the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, spoke against Portland removing Engine 1 from service during a May 17 press conference. On Monday the City Council approved the municipal budget without funding for the truck.
Under the municipal budget passed Monday, the Portland City Council decommissioned Engine 1 at the Munjoy Hill fire station.