2017-09-15 / Front Page

Fire department up for restructuring

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Members of the South Portland Fire Department, including, from left, Mike Norton of Scarborough, Brian Smart of South Portland, Chief James Wilson, Matthew Ross of Lyman, and Jake Freeman of Buxton, pose September 12 with the newest addition to the city fleet, an $580,000 Pierce model fire truck. The new Engine 44 will bump a 2013 truck at the West End station to reserve status, while the department's current reserve engine, which dates to 1991, will be offered for sale. (Duke Harrington photo) Members of the South Portland Fire Department, including, from left, Mike Norton of Scarborough, Brian Smart of South Portland, Chief James Wilson, Matthew Ross of Lyman, and Jake Freeman of Buxton, pose September 12 with the newest addition to the city fleet, an $580,000 Pierce model fire truck. The new Engine 44 will bump a 2013 truck at the West End station to reserve status, while the department's current reserve engine, which dates to 1991, will be offered for sale. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Faced with demographic and economic changes that have depleted volunteer ranks and caused more full-time firefighters to make their homes outside of the city, the South Portland Fire Department is up for a reorganizational change.

Fire Chief James Wilson outlined a plan at a Monday, Sept. 11 city council workshop. At that session, councilors adopted a hands-off approach, complementing the department’s work, but leaving structural changes to Wilson and City Manager Scott Morelli.

“That’s all good, but I wanted the council to know and hopefully be on board as the changes will result in some short-term staffing shortages, but a long-term need for more staff. I’ll be coming back soon requesting more new firefighters,” Wilson said in a Sept. 12 interview.

The fire department operates out of three fully staffed stations: Central Station at 684 Broadway; Cash Corner at 360 Main St.; and West End, located at 34 James Baka Drive. It also maintains two call companies, which operate out of fire houses at Willard Square and Union Street.

The department runs with one chief and three deputy chiefs. Each of the four chiefs is responsible for providing one week of nighttime and weekend coverage as shift commanders. When the system was initially adopted in 1995, a majority of the full-time members lived either in South Portland or in a neighboring community. Today, less than 12 percent of the current full-time officers live within 30 minutes of the city. Some live as far as two hours away.

“As such, when vacancies arise in the deputy chief slots, the pool of potential candidates is narrowed considerably as those who live more than 20 minutes away would not be able to provide a timely response to a major event when it is their week to do so,” Morelli wrote in a memo to the council.

Given this challenge, Wilson plans to eliminate two of the three vacant deputy chief positions and replace them with a new captain position. Those slots would not be management, but members of the firefighters union. This would result in four total captains, who would no longer be assigned as crew supervisors on a fire truck. They would instead be elevated to shift commanders and assigned their own SUV. In their place, three new lieutenants would be created and all fire trucks would have one of these lieutenants on each shift.

On the administrative front, there would be one chief and one deputy chief. The deputy would oversee code enforcement, building plan review, and the fire prevention program. The emergency medical services (EMS) program would be overseen by the union EMS coordinator. The number of full-time employees would remain at 67.

However, other staffing changes are required to accommodate Wilson’s reorganization proposal, which would have the net effect of no longer staffing the Rescue 45 ambulance unit.

The changes would mean about $20,000 in shortterm financial savings to taxpayers, although Wilson does expect overtime costs to increase. Still, he said he believes much of that can be covered within his existing overtime budget. However, there will also be bargaining impacts that result from this proposal that will also lead to added costs.

“The long-term financial impact is that this proposal adds more cost,” Morelli said, citing an expected need for two new firefighters in fiscal year 2019, two more in fiscal year 2020 and up to four in fiscal year 2021, “or beyond depending on call volumes.

South Portland has the only fire department in Maine to hold a top ranking from the Insurance Services Office, which measures response time and service levels that affect homeowner insurance policies. To maintain that, that fire departments needs to have 15 firefighters on scene within eight minutes of a call for 90 percent of all fires.

“Currently, there are only 13 members on duty at most at any given time,” Morelli said.

Part of the issue with staffing is on the volunteer front. The department has 26 people in its call companies, the folks who train to turn out on an as-needed basis for structure fires and other emergencies. That’s down from 105 volunteers in 2000.

“That’s dramatic, a 79 percent decrease. It’s a statewide, even a nationwide problem,” Wilson said. “It takes a lot of training to get on and then to stay on the fire department. It amounts to about 40 hours a year just in regular training, which amounts to three or four hours twice a week.”

“We’re always looking, and we get a lot of inquiries, but they come and go,” Wilson said, likening the experience to being a Little League coach, or other draws on the time of prospective volunteers.

“As a coach, you don’t get a call at 6 a.m. on a Saturday saying, ‘We have a game. Hurry! Hurry! Come now! We have a game!’ and then you get there and it’s, ‘Sorry, we thought we had a game, but there’s no game.’ The thing is, we don’t really have a ton of fires these days that require the extra help. So, people lose motivation, because it’s like being on a ball team that practices forever but never plays an actual game. So, for families where people are working two jobs, that’s a tough thing to compete with other demands on people’s time.”

Volunteers increasingly live within city limits. However, full-time members often live further away.

Full-time employees work eight 24-hours shifts in any given 30-day period. That means they are available on a moment’s notice when on duty, while the added time off allows them to live further away, given the relatively few times they need to engage in long commutes each month.

“That affords them the ability to live further away from the city, to get a bigger bang for their buck (in housing costs),” Wilson said. “There are guys who live on 20 acres in a 3,000-square-foot house for $150,000. You couldn’t buy a small condo for that in the city.”

Proposed staffing changes should streamline and improve leadership, however, reduce the ranks somewhat at first. That coupled with fewer volunteers will drive the need for more staffing long-term.

Still, Wilson said, changes are largely in-house. From the standpoint of city residents on the receiving end of services, there will be no apparent change.

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