May 4th, 2013 By NIGEL JAQUISS | News | Posted In: Politics, City Hall

Hales' Plans For Fire Bureau: Smaller Rigs

     
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Mayor Charlie Hales clashed with firefighters when, as a city commissioner, he oversaw Portland Fire & Rescue in the late 1990s. Hales pushed hard for the bureau to diversify its hiring practices, which, to some degree, it has done.

Not surprisingly, when Hales ran for mayor last year, after a decade in the private sector, Firefighters Local 43 threw its support to his rival, then-Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-Portland).

When Hales release his first budget this week, by far the biggest change he proposed was a fundamental shift to how the fire bureau operates. 

As WW reported last year, the bureau has continued to respond to nearly each one of its 70,000 annual calls for service with a four-person truck or engine, long after most fire departments discontinued that practice. Given that fewer than three percent of calls are for actual fires—most are calls for medical assistance—the historical practice of staffing vehicles has come under increasing scrutiny.

In his budget Hales proposed a significant reduction in staffing: He would eliminate 42 of the bureau's 733 full-time-equivalent positions, a six percent reduction in staffing. In percentage terms, that's a far bigger cut than the 55 positions he proposes to eliminate from the Police Bureau. The Police Bureau employs far more people than Fire, so the proposed reduction in the number of cops equals only four percent of police positions. (In the opaque world of city budgeting, it remains unclear how many people will actually lose their jobs. For instance, 38 of the 55 police positions targeted for elimination are currently unfilled).

When the Fire Bureau submitted its budget proposal earlier this year, the bureau called for closing seven of its 30 fire stations. That was not a serious proposal and Hales ignored it, choosing to keep all stations open.

What he did instead reflects a belief that sending four-person vehicles—which often cost $1 million or more—to every call is inefficient.

Here's how his budget fact sheet describes Hales' plans to reshape the Fire Bureau:

Changes related to Medical Nature of Incidents


The Mayor proposes changes to recognize that most PF&R incidents a re medical:

• Staff Restructuring: o Four regular companies (52 positions) are eliminated.
Four two - person Rapid Response Vehicle (RRV) units (26 positions) are established and integrated into regular 24/7 operations in high volume areas. o The bureau will analyze and assess the appropriate company closures and station placement of the RRV companies to best serve the residents and businesses of the city. The net change is a loss of 26 firefighter positions and $2.8 million in savings.

• Triage Protocols: A Budget Note direct s the bureau to work with Multnomah County EMS and BOEC to develop additional or new triage protocols f or medical incidents so that RRV units can respond to more of them
Those are ambitious changes and a direct assault on a bureau proud of its traditions and, as annual city surveys show, beloved by Portlanders.

What the bureau does not have, however, is the strong protection it enjoyed from former City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who led the fire union for a dozen years before serving on City Council from 2002 through 2012. In previous budget cycles, firefighters could count on Leonard and former Mayor Sam Adams to protect them. Now, in Hales and Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman, it faces a majority of council members who have pushed for changes in the way the bureau operates.

Fire union President Alan Ferschweiler was not reachable for comment.
 
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