In the Line of Fire

Is city hall finally ready to reform Portland Fire & Rescue?

For decades, Portland Fire & Rescue has had the political clout to fight any meaningful change in the way it does business. And, as city records show, that's meant big budgets, slow response times and traditional approaches experts say are expensive and inefficient.

Even as the number of fires has plummeted—to less than 3 percent of the 70,000 calls firefighters responded to last year—the bureau has added more employees and still rolls a four-person fire truck even for minor medical calls.

And when threatened with reduced spending, fire bureau officials have always claimed that any cuts would mean a greater risk of Portlanders dying.

But City Hall—after decades of failing to stand up to the bureau—is about to call fire officials' bluff.

Documents show the City Budget Office has called for sweeping changes in the fire bureau to reduce its inefficient ways.

The proposed reforms follow a shift in power on the City Council after the 2012 elections. And the changes are in tune with consultants' reports critical of the way the fire bureau has operated. These include reports WW uncovered last fall but city officials have largely ignored (“Burning Money,” WW, Sept. 26, 2012). 

"In the past, nobody would have let those recommendations see the light of day," says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman. "[The fire bureau doesn't] want to look at how to operate in the 21st century."

Previous Mayor Sam Adams deferred on fire issues to then-City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who had served as a firefighter for 25 years, included a dozen as head of the firefighters' union. 

Leonard was a relentless supporter of the bureau, and never more so than during budget season. Even as the Police Bureau closed two of its five precincts during the past decade, Leonard not only kept all 30 fire stations operating, he led a successful 2010 ballot-measure campaign to renovate stations and buy new equipment.

The new mayor, Charlie Hales, battled Leonard and the bureau's tradition-bound culture in the late 1990s, when Hales was the city's fire commissioner.

During the mayoral race, Firefighters Local 43 bet big on Hales' opponent, Jefferson Smith. The union also spent heavily in a failed attempt to defeat incumbent Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who has been skeptical of the fire bureau and has a history of clashing with Leonard.

That's three of five council members inclined to shake up the fire bureau.

Hales says the budget office's approach to pushing back against the fire bureau is the result of a broader effort to scrub budget proposals across city government.

"We just laid down a tone," Hales says of the budget office. "They're pushing the bureaus hard with my encouragement."

The fire bureau is led by Chief Erin Janssens, who has not been tested by City Hall budget fights before.

She has so far faced three hours of grilling in City Council budget hearings. "The changes we're talking about are really big deals," Janssens says.

Last fall, WW reported the fire bureau sends a four-person fire vehicle to every medical call, no matter how insignificant—making it the only major U.S. city to do so. The story cited a report from Virginia-based TriData, which consults to fire agencies around the country, that found two-person vehicles can respond to many medical calls more efficiently.

WW also reported that the bureau's response times don't meet city targets, and that a consultant's draft study had been edited so other proposals—such as cutting staffing at fire stations—could be kept out of the final report.

The city's budget office is calling on the fire bureau to prioritize medical calls and send two-person rapid-response vehicles on such calls instead of four-person trucks and engines. Janssens says she backs the plan only if it means adding fire bureau staff.

The biggest issue, however, is station closure. The city faces a $25 million budget gap next year, and Hales has asked all bureaus to propose 10 percent cuts in their budgets. In their proposal, fire officials say they would have to close seven of 30 stations—and predicted an increased danger to citizens.

"Any budget changes that do not restore all stations to operation are a concern to us," says Alan Ferschweiler, fire union president.

Currently, there is a wide disparity in how busy Portland's 30 fire stations are. Two stations respond to more than 6,000 calls per year; two others respond to fewer than 600. Even with 30 stations, the bureau's average response time is nearly two minutes off its goal of getting to calls within five minutes and 20 seconds.

The City Budget Office has recommended the bureau close three stations and spread equipment and personnel more evenly.

Janssens says the bureau is still gathering data about how closures might occur, but she's hoping that funding will materialize.

“We don’t want to close any fire stations,” she says. “Our No. 1 priority is protecting the public.”