South Portland fire chief makes case for restructuring

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Fire Chief James Wilson introduced two restructuring options to the City Council that would provide round-the-clock Fire Department supervision.

Wilson at a Monday, Sept. 11, workshop also made the case for increasing staffing to meet the city’s growing needs.

The Fire Department operates out of three fully staffed stations: Central Fire Station, at 684 Broadway; Cash Corner at 360 Main St., and the West End Station, at 34 James Baka Drive. The department also uses three call companies to operate the Willard Square and Union Street stations.

The department’s staffing arrangement for supervisors includes the chief and three deputies, who work Monday-Friday, but normally not on weekends. Each of the deputy chiefs covers a weekend from home every three weeks.

Wilson said this arrangement can result in reduced response times from home for the on-duty chief, especially in inclement weather.

His first suggested resolution would eliminate two of the deputy positions, keeping one deputy to work Monday-Friday along with the chief. One additional captain position would be created, and the captains would be removed from crews and placed into shift commander roles. There would also be three additional lieutenant positions to replace the captains on the crew.

Wilson said this option could save the department about $20,000 in the first year, but there could be some additional overtime which, he said, would not be significant.

The drawback is that additional expenses would be incurred in future years because the positions are union jobs.

The option doesn’t change overall staffing in the department, he said.

The other option is adding a deputy and moving all four deputies to shifts, while creating a fire marshal position to work Monday-Friday to cover the administrative workload for fire prevention and plan reviews.

Wilson said benefits to this restructuring include 24-hour coverage. He said there would be one boss per shift, and 24/7 point-of-contact for department and city employees, the dispatch center, and citizens. There would also be additional line staff to handle the administrative workload when not responding to emergencies.

In his discussion about additional firefighters, Wilson noted the potential for more than 1,000 new housing units in the city, some of which are already being built and others that are proposed, including Sable Lodge and Brick Hill Heights, Clark’s Pond Parkway, and at Sable Oaks golf course. He also mentioned two new hotels that are coming to the city – Tru by Hilton and Home2 Suites by Hilton – that will bring more overnight guests to the city.

Wilson told the council the industry standard is three firefighters working per company, which includes an engine, ladder truck or rescue truck.

The department’s roster includes 67 full-time firefighters and paramedics. They staff four different shifts, with 13-15 on-duty firefighters and officers city-wide working each shift. The department also runs three call companies that utilize 20 paid call firefighters.

South Portland operates with two-person crews with the exception of Engine 48, which is staffed with one officer and two firefighters. But Wilson said a study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology determined two-person crews are “very ineffective,” and four-person crews are “optimal.”

Wilson his his staffing goals for the 2019 budget would be to have 14 firefighters on duty at a time, which would mean hiring an additional four firefighters. In 2020 Wilson is projecting the need for another two firefighters; in 2021, two firefighters and in 2022, four more.

“It is certainly not cheap, but I think it is an investment we need to make,” he said. “Now is the time to move forward with a multi-year plan.”

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

South Portland Fire Chief James Wilson presented his ideas for reorganizing the Fire Departmentat in a City Council workshop Monday, Sept. 11.