It does appear, however, that there was some confusion about the Fire Chief's proposal and about the role the council would play in making this decision. This was evidenced by the number of people who called, wrote, or testified publicly to protest the closing of the Munjoy Hill station, something that was never being considered. To be very clear on that point:
The Munjoy Hill Fire Station is not closing.
I also heard from many people who were concerned that 12 firefighters would be losing their jobs. That is also not accurate.
There will be no reduction in force at the Fire Department, and no one is losing a job. There are 226 full-time employees in the Fire Department now, and there will be 226 on July 1st, when the new fiscal year and the new budget kick in.
And after the vote, I heard from people who wanted to know which councilors had voted against keeping the engine. It seems that a lot of people were under the impression that the council would be taking a direct vote on Engine 1, which was not the case.
So what exactly was proposed, how did the vote go down, and what does it all mean for Munjoy Hill and the rest of the city? Good questions. Here's the deal.
Right now, the Munjoy Hill station is home to two trucks (Engine 1 and Ladder 1) and one ambulance (Medcu 1). These three pieces of apparatus are operated with a total crew of 32 people spread out over four rotating shifts, which means there are 8 people at the station at any given time: three on Engine 1, three on Ladder 1, and 2 on Medcu 1.
Engine 1 is a water pumping engine. Put another way, it's the truck with the hoses. Ladder 1 is a ladder truck, but it is also a "quint." A quint is a specialized truck that performs multiple functions. As such, Ladder 1 can be used as both a water pumping engine (like Engine 1) and a ladder truck. This is key to the Chief's proposal, as are the number of calls for service for these two trucks and the types of calls that the Fire Department is responding to these days. We'll get into that below.
The Fire Chief's Proposal
Under the Chief's proposal, a few things will happen.
Engine 1 will be decommissioned as of July 1, 2019. Ladder 1 and Medcu 1 will remain at the Munjoy Hill station and be staffed at all times. In terms of numbers, this means that instead of having a minimum of eight people at the station at any given time, there will be a minimum of five: three on Ladder 1, which can operated as either a ladder or an engine, and two on Medcu 1, the ambulance. But again, no positions are being eliminated.
Instead, the 12 personnel who currently staff Engine One (3 per shift on 4 rotating shifts) will be utilized in other positions within the department. This reorganization will help to improve the department's Emergency Medical Service (EMS) division, and as it turns out, EMS calls are the type of calls the fire department responds to most these days.
As the Fire Chief said at an April meeting of the Finance Committee, "Nine out of ten times when we're called, there's not going to be a fire. We need to change the way we do business."
In the past decade, EMS calls have risen by nearly 25%. In that same time period, calls for structure fires have decreased by 50%. Simply put, fire calls are down; EMS calls are up.
That's why our Fire Chief, Keith Gautreau (who has 24 years of service with the PFD) has been looking at the overall organization of the department, the way they use overtime, and how to best manage everything going forward. Chief Gautreau believes that this reorganization will enable the PFD to better manage EMS calls, and once again, the majority of the Fire Department's calls these days are EMS calls.
As an example, Engine 1 responded to 836 medical calls in 2018 and just 95 fire calls. Many emails and flyers have noted that Engine 1 responded to 1890 calls overall in 2018, but it's important to note that 687 of those were false alarms/false calls.
Click on the chart to the right to enlarge it so you can see the volume of calls handled by four of the PFD's trucks in 2018.
Engine 11 and Ladder 4 are included here because they will assist Ladder 1 in taking over the service calls currently being handled by Engine 1.
How Will This Reorganization Impact Public Safety?
Public safety is, of course, a very big concern and rightly so. That's why throughout this process I (and others) have asked Chief Gautreau on multiple occasions if he felt that the safety of anyone on the Hill or anywhere else in the City would be in any way compromised by this move. Each time, the Chief has answered, "Absolutely not. I wouldn't have proposed this if I thought anyone's safety would be compromised."
If you're wondering if you can trust Chief Gautreau's assessment of this situation, consider the following.
Chief Gautreau has 24 years of service with the Fire Department. He started as boots-on-the-ground in 1995 and has worked his way up through the organization through years of dedication and hard work.
He served as a Firefighter for eight years before moving to the position of Fire Lieutenant in 2003. He was then promoted to Fire Captain in 2008, Deputy Fire Chief in 2014, Assistant Fire Chief in 2015, and Fire Chief in 2018. I know him as a man of great integrity, but you don't need to take my word for it.
In 2016, Chief Gautreau (who was then Assistant Fire Chief) receive the Robert B. Ganley Service Award. Here are a few excerpts from the nominations he received from his peers:
- "Keith's most prevalent trait is his concern and support of the members of the Fire Department. He truly understands that it is his responsibility to support those who work for him, and to give them the tools and information they need to perform their job to the best of their ability."
- "Keith has a great ability to work with people, to seek compromise, and to solve problems while holding himself and those around him to a high standard."
- "For his entire twenty-plus years of service, he has been a fire service educator, including being a primary instructor at the Department's Fire Academies since 2000. He also delivers many instructional programs throughout the year, both for the Department and the public, which demonstrate his dedication to educating the public on the importance of fire safety."
- "Keith was the Deputy Chief in charge at the tragic Noyes Street fire. The consequences of that fire drove him to consider being promoted into a position where he would be overseeing the Fire Prevention Bureau. He ultimately chose to pursue the Assistant Chief role because he wanted to use his skills and abilities to make a positive impact on Fire Prevention and Safety in the City."
As you can see, Chief Gautreau's colleagues think very highly of him, and I do not for a minute believe that a man who has dedicated his life to the public's safety would stand behind a plan that compromised it.
How Did the Vote Go Down?
I know it sounded to people like the decommissioning of Engine 1 was ultimately a Council decision. And it probably seemed to many folks like the Council would be taking a direct vote on whether or not to decommission the engine, but that was not the case. Ultimately, what happened here is that the fire chief brought forward a budget of $18,235,148, which is a 5.4% increase over last year. Part of his plan to keep the fire department increase to 5.4% (which is a healthy increase) included reorganizing the department so it could better respond to medical calls, which comprise the majority of the PFD's calls for service. That reorganization included the decommissioning of Engine 1.
During the May 20th meeting in which the Council deliberated the budget, the Mayor brought forward an amendment to add nine firefighters to the PFD. After a great deal of discussion, it became clear that adding 9 firefighters to the fire department would not have changed the chief's plan to decommission Engine 1. At the same time, it would have added at least $400,000 to the overall budget, which would have increased the tax levy further. For these reasons, I did not support the Mayor's amendment.
That amendment to add 9 firefighters was the only attempt by the Council to change the outcome of the fire chief's proposal and as I said, it wouldn't have kept Engine 1 on the Hill. Short of adding millions of dollars to the fire department budget, I'm not sure anything would have kept Engine 1 on the Hill, because ultimately, it was a decision made with the future of the fire department in mind: the types of service calls, the necessary staffing levels, and the number of apparatus needed to perform the work of the department were all part of that calculus.
As I mentioned above, I supported Chief Gautreau's decision to reorganize the fire department, and that includes the decommissioning of Engine 1. He has been with the fire department for 24 years and has been singled out on multiple occasions for his excellent service and his commitment to public safety. I believe that he knows best how to organize and run his department, and while I appreciate that others didn't want anything to change, I have confidence in Chief Gautreau's ability to make decisions in the best interest of the department and with the public safety of the city in mind.
Integrity to Go Around
In addition to the integrity shown by Chief Gautreau throughout this process, I also want to point out that the firefighters who put forward an alternate plan for staffing and funding the Portland Fire Department in this year's budget are also people of integrity. We are indeed very fortunate in the City of Portland to have such intelligent, dedicated, compassionate, and professional people serving in our Fire Department.
I have been impressed not only with the amount of work that members of the Firefighters Union who wished to retain Engine 1 put into their arguments, but also with the way in which the leaders of the Union have comported themselves. It is a testament to our Chief, and to the entire department, that these conversations remained civil and productive throughout the process.
Additional Information on the Chief's Plan
I'm attaching a memo from the chief that lays out his reorganization plan and explains what the PFD will be able to achieve with this new structure. This memo also includes data regarding the level of staffing in the fire department here in Portland as compared with other New England cities, which is an interesting data point.
One piece of information that I have taken forward from this discussion is that we may still need to have conversations about the level of overtime that exists in the PFD. There is a delicate balance in exploring this, of course, because with overtime being so routine in the department, it is quite possible that many PFD employees have come to rely on the extra wages they receive through overtime to make ends meet. To abruptly end overtime for these employees could have a negative economic impact on some of our firefighters.
At the same time, it is clear that being a firefighter is incredibly demanding and that our firefighters' health, both physical and mental, needs to be supported. Consistent overtime, while it can be a financial benefit, can also be taxing and detrimental, particularly in a field as arduous as firefighting.
I expect that we will be having continued conversations around overtime as we move forward and as Chief Gautreau continues to assess the best way to manage the resources of the fire department. In doing so, I am confident that he will continue working to ensure the health and safety of our city residents and our firefighters while making sure that the PFD is in the best possible position to respond to the number and types of calls that are received.
Once again, I want to thank everyone who contacted me about this issue. While I was unable to personally respond to all of the communications, I did read/listen to each and every one of them and I appreciate everyone who took time out of their busy schedules to weigh in.