PORTLAND — “It’s been a really busy two weeks,” the city’s new fire chief, Jeroma LaMoria, said late Friday afternoon.
Busy indeed. Since being sworn in as chief Jan. 3, LaMoria has been the point man for two high-profile news stories involving the Fire Department.
On Jan. 8, an arbitrator reduced the suspensions of two firefighters who were operating the city’s $3.2 million fireboat when it was damaged in a October 2011 accident. The decision renewed controversy about the way the city handled the accident – and brought back memories of an earlier accident with the fireboat, The City of Portland IV, that occurred in November 2009, two months after it was launched.
Coincidentally, LaMoria has been talking with the press about a long-awaited external audit of the department’s staffing and operations. City councilors called for the investigation last spring amid concerns about cost overruns in the department. With an annual budget of about $16 million, the department spent $2 million on overtime during the 2012 fiscal year.
The four-month audit, the first overall review of the PFD since the 1980s, started last week when researchers from Maryland-based Public Safety Solutions arrived in Portland.
On Friday, LaMoria said the timing of the audit and his start was fortunate.
“It would have taken me months if not years for me to truly understand the uniqueness of this city and to apply corrective measures (in the department),” he said. “To have outside experts coming in at this time is really a win-win.”
The audit will look at every aspect of the PFD, he said, including its structure, operational demands, use of overtime, stations and equipment such as the fireboat.
“At my request and the request of (City Manager Mark Rees), PSSI will make (fireboat operations) a priority so we can … make sure that the city’s response was appropriate. If it wasn’t, we may make some changes right now,” LaMoria said.
LaMoria, a 25-year firefighting veteran of Prince George’s County, Md., has participated in such audits previously, and is enthusiastic about the one beginning in Portland.
“What’s important about the process is that these are trained professionals, who do (these audits) as their job,” he said. “This process truly evaluates the city and the department in comparison to national standards and best practices, not necessarily to other jurisdictions.”
Portland, he said, poses an unusual mix of firefighting and emergency management challenges, including its international airport, marine traffic, highways, and proximity to railways and an oil pipeline.
In addition, he said, the city includes island communities and a downtown that is home to many old, densely spaced buildings.
“There’s still a threat of very large fires here,” he said of the city, which has been leveled four times by fires, including the 1866 blaze that destroyed 1,500 buildings and displaced 10,000 residents.
But these days, the PFD is focusing increasingly on other types of emergencies.
In 2012, the 237-member department responded to about 15,000 calls, of which nearly 11,200 were for medical crises, according to preliminary figures.
That type of breakdown is “very typical,” LaMoria said, citing the Washington, D.C., area, where emergency medical services account for about 75 percent of fire calls.
“It would be foolish not to say that I believe we need to boost our EMS transport capability,” LaMoria said. “The rate the units are running now is not conducive to quality service delivery. That’s something we have to come to grips with.
“Two of our EMS units make over 3,000 runs a year. That’s extremely busy, and can lead to burnout, which will start to erode the quality of our service.”
Still, he praised the way Portland has integrated fire and EMS services, and noted that it was one of the first small cities in New England to do so in the 1970s. Integrating Portland’s response to fires, medical needs and other emergencies just makes sense, he said.
“It’s almost time for us to stop thinking of (fire and EMS) as separate entities. They’re more similar than they are different,” LaMoria said. “We have to look at our job as, when someone picks up the phone and dials 911, they’re now our customer, and we’re going to respond to them. Whether they’re sick or they think they smell smoke really doesn’t matter.”
That holistic approach to crises is one with which LaMoria is familiar from his days in Maryland, where he served as acting deputy fire chief of emergency operations and later as training and exercise coordinator for the county Office of Homeland Security.
“That experience gave me a pretty good perspective on the new role of the fire department,” he said. “It’s an all-hazards approach. When local emergencies happen, fire and EMS are the front line in responding.”
While the Maryland fire department and the population it serves are much larger than those in Portland, LaMoria said the lessons are the same. And he’s enthusiastic about coming to Portland, which he visited as a boy growing up in Newfane, Vt.
“I remember as a child coming through Portland and marveling at Central Station and its architecture. I’d always wanted to be a firefighter, and I remember thinking, what a great place that must be,” he said. “Now, with my office here, I sometimes have a hard time realizing my dream has come true.”
Since arriving in the city, LaMoria said he has been in communication with fire chiefs in nearby communities as well as in Bangor, where Chief Scott Lucas started work one month before him. LaMoria has also been talking with firefighters, visiting stations and getting to know his new department.
The PFD, he said, is anxious about the outcome of the audit, but also eager to get the process going.
“The men and women of the department, at the end of the day, just want to do a good job. They’ve taken some bruises and bumps in recent times, but they also have a sense of tenacity and pride,” he said.
“I think they recognized that this (audit) was going to happen, and they’ve accepted it. There will be some conflicts, but we can’t grow without going through those conflicts … The challenge is going to be to embrace where we go as a new normal. What the changes look like is too early to tell.”
Ultimately, he said, Portland’s fireboat should not be a source of embarrassment or controversy.
“When you see the fireboat in the harbor, (the boat) should be a symbol of pride,” he said. “We’re eager to get that pride back.”
Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria, right, receives his badge from his father, a former Vermont fire chief, after taking the oath of office in City Hall on Jan. 3. LaMoria is the 14th chief in the Portland Fire Department’s 182-year history.