Portland weighs Fire Dept. consolidation after firefighters OK contract

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PORTLAND — A new labor agreement between the city and its firefighters will get a City Council reading March 7.

After the contract is approved, labor and management want to move forward on potential changes in operations and infrastructure, including consolidation.

“We are open to anything that makes our job more efficient,” firefighter Chris Thomson said Monday.

Thomson heads International Association of Firefighters Local 740, which ratified a four-year labor agreement last week. There are about 220 members of the local union.

The agreement, which Fire Chief David Jackson said provides wage increases of 8 percent over the term of the contract, runs through 2017. The union had been working without a contract for more than two years.

“We are happy we have come to an agreement, and the union and management were able to get back together about a month ago,” Jackson said about breaking the stalemate that lasted through four city managers (two of them interim), and two fire chiefs.

The contract provides wage increases, some retroactive, but Thomson noted the city will achieve savings because the union agreed to be paid straight time for the first 12 hours of any overtime worked in a week.

Three firefighters staff each engine company. Those who had filled in at stations because of staffing issues were getting paid overtime for anything worked above their normal 42-hour shifts.

Because of the protracted negotiations, the union also agreed to extend the contract for a year beyond the typical three-year labor contract.

With labor issues settled, Jackson and City Manager Jon Jennings are discussing ways to make the department more efficient.

At a Feb. 4 meeting of the City Council Finance Committee, Jennings said it could mean consolidating some of the city’s fire stations.

There are no concrete plans yet, but Jackson said the age and condition of city fire stations are a source of concern and can be costly.

“The city has not built a new fire station in 40 years,” he said. “Some are from the late 1950s and 1960s. It is something we need to seriously get back and look at.”

New stations could end up paying for themselves over time with savings in energy consumption, and be better suited to new technology, Jackson said.

He will be studying data on the 17,000-plus calls the department answers, to determine where areas could be better served or new fire stations could be located. One potential spot is Canco Road in the area where the city is already planning to move the Public Works Department.

“If we are going to move the station, we have to find the land,” Jackson said.

None of this would happen immediately, no matter how quickly planning would progress.

“If we took 2016 just to plan, it is a five-year project,” Jackson said about getting a new fire station.

Planning the future – whether it’s buying equipment or vehicles or the long-range plans for new fire stations – is also complicated by other pressing city needs. City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell has said the city would have to bond between $19 million and $21 million annually to meet infrastructure and equipment needs.

At the same time, to avoid increases to the property tax rate, new bond spending would have to be capped at anywhere from $14.4 million in fiscal year 2019 to $7.9 million in fiscal year 2020. 

Jackson said the department considers a 20-year lifespan for a fire truck “standard,” but increases in calls for MEDCU units make a 15-year lifespan for ambulances less feasible now.

In response to a 2013 audit by Public Safety Solutions, a Maryland-based consulting firm, and after reviewing call data, Jackson said the department has changed some responses to calls and created fuel savings of 6 percent, which follows a 4 percent reduction in 2014 from 2013.

That report had also suggested the department had a larger staff than comparable cities, but also recommended more hires to alleviate overtime costs.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Lt. Todd Zsiga of Engine Co. 11 displays extrication tools Monday at the East Deering Station at 576 Ocean Ave. The station is one that could be consolidated in the future, according to Fire Chief David Jackson.

Lt. Todd Zsiga was on duy Monday at the East Deering fire station at 576 Ocean Ave. The building is approaching 60 years old and lacks energy efficiency and full ventilation for exhaust from trucks.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.
  • Mefrfiter

    They should have SUV’s ($30,000) chasing ambulances instead of half million dollar fire trucks.(Pumper) That would extend the life of the fire trucks and lessen fuel costs. Like everyhere else 80% of the calls are for MEDCU.