Portland Fire Dept. to add 12 firefighters with $1M federal grant

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PORTLAND — A more than $1 million grant from the federal government will allow the Fire Department to restore 12 firefighters who were cut from the force in 2008 because of budgetary constraints.

The city found out late last month that the department was chosen to received a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant. The $1.05 million in funding would be received over a two-year period.

Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne said the department applied for the grant in 2009, but was not selected for funding that year. It reapplied last year.

“”It’s a competitive process,” LaMontagne said.

The City Council has to vote to accept to money, and could take up the matter as soon as May 16, City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said. She said she expects the council will want to discuss what happens at the end of the two years.

“I think the chief has made it clear there is no commitment by the city to take over full funding after the two years,” Clegg said. Instead, LaMontagne said he intends to look for alternative funding and also to work on cost-saving measures.

The chief said in an interview last week that the money would be used to bring back the department’s heavy rescue unit, which was cut in the fiscal year 2009 budget. The unit focused on search and rescue and was based at Bramhall Station.

Fourteen firefighter positions were eliminated at that time. The grant would bring back all but two.

LaMontagne said adding to the force will help the department reach the national standard of having a response time of four minutes or less on calls for service.

Adding a unit also helps the department cover the city more efficiently in the event of multiple calls. Approximately 600 times a month, the department gets two calls at a time. The department also often responds to three calls at a time.

In July 2010, for example, there were more than 400 times when that happened. With about 30 firefighters on duty and mobile per shift (excluding the airport and fire boat), the department’s ability to respond can get stretched thin.

“We can’t predict when our busiest times are going to be,” LaMontagne said.

In addition to four minutes being the standard response time, he said four minutes or less is also critical to saving the life of a cardiac arrest victim. Fire trucks are equipped with the same medical equipment as ambulances, so often firefighters respond first to rescue calls and provide life-saving support.

“We’re basically one company short in all parts of the city to meet the four-minute goal,” the chief said.

In order to the keep the positions after the grant runs out in two years, the chief said the department would look into cost-sharing measures with nearby communities, and new ways to generate revenue. 

“We’re going to have to look at a lot of different ideas,” he said.

Clegg said if the council accepts the grant, the city would probably start receiving fund this summer.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net Follow her on Twitter: @katebucklin.