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September 26th, 2012 NIGEL JAQUISS | Cover Story
 

Burning Money

Portland loves its firefighters—and that’s allowed the fire bureau to become one of the most wasteful operations in the city.

lede_firedept_3847IMAGE: Matt Wong
Portland Fire & Rescue’s newest ladder truck is one of the most sophisticated machines of its kind, a 78,000-pound, gleaming red behemoth designed to fight the biggest fires.

The Pierce Arrow XT, known as truck No. 2, stretches 42 feet long, stands an inch under 12 feet tall and roars on its mission with a 515-horsepower engine. 

When it was being built, fire officials made several trips to Appleton, Wis., to watch over every detail. And for good reason: The rig cost taxpayers $1.35 million.

Truck No. 2 is a marvel of engineering, the pride of a Portland bureau that more than any other is defined by its equipment—and a fire-engine-red symbol of an extraordinary waste of tax dollars.

The truck’s ladder can extend 105 feet, but it’s stationed in Parkrose, where most buildings are four stories or fewer. And although it will make 1,000 runs in the next year, only a small percentage will be fires.

The number of fires in Portland has been plummeting for years, yet the fire bureau’s budget remains oriented toward a workload that changed not years but decades ago. 

More than 97 percent of the calls the bureau responds to are not fires. Most are non-life-threatening medical calls. Nonetheless, the fire bureau rolls on every call, sending four firefighters on a truck or engine regardless of how serious the incident. 

“It may not look that way,” says Fire Commissioner Randy Leonard, who served as a firefighter for 25 years before entering City Hall as a city commissioner in 2002, “but it’s a very efficient system.”

Critics and a city consultant’s report disagree with that assertion.

IMAGE: ronitphoto.com

“We are over-responding, and that is wasteful,” says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who has been pushing fire-bureau reforms for years. 

“We need to reconfigure the fire bureau and make it fit today’s needs, which are mainly medical.”

The costs of running big rigs is only the beginning. 

Of the 100 highest-paid city employees in 2010-2011, 40 were firefighters. Their contract puts no limit on overtime—all but the chief can collect it—and pads their pay for basic skills.

To be sure, firefighters often put themselves at risk, charging into burning buildings and plunging into icy waters to make rescues. Last week, the crew on truck No. 2 made news when it rescued a kitten from a drainage pipe—firefighters nicknamed her “Champ.” City surveys regularly show 90 percent of Portlanders are happy with the fire bureau—a number that far exceeds any other city agency.

But a consultant’s report the city commissioned last year found Portland firefighters are underworked and less effective than their peers in comparable cities. Even the story of Champ the kitten underscored the layers of time and money the bureau has on hand: Truck No. 2 was joined by a $700,000 heavy rescue squad vehicle from downtown, a $600,000 engine and a chief officer that responded to the call at Northeast 118th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard. In all, 13 highly trained firefighters hovered over the cat rescue, which took six hours.

The bureau’s popularity, a formidable union and Leonard have shielded firefighters from reform. But with a new chief who’s not from the bureau’s good-old-boy culture and Leonard’s retirement at the end of the year, a new mayor could bring long-overdue changes to the bureau—and save taxpayers millions. 

Here’s the mayor’s to-do list.


1. Drag the fire bureau out of the 20th century.

On Sept. 2, the derelict Thunderbird on the River Hotel on Hayden Island burned in one of the most dramatic blazes in years. It took 200 firefighters and 39 trucks, engines, fireboats and other vehicles to control the fire. 

That blaze offered a stark reminder of firefighters’ crucial role. The bureau must keep enough crews and rigs available to extinguish fires in every corner of the city.

But the Thunderbird fire was also a rarity. Today, nearly every building in downtown Portland has a sprinkler system. Nearly every home and apartment building has smoke alarms. 

Since 1995, the number of fires in Portland has dropped by nearly half.

Meanwhile, the total number of calls firefighters respond to has jumped by one-third.

SOURCE: Portland Fire & Rescue

In raw numbers, Portland Fire & Rescue responded to 67,191 calls last year—and fewer than 3 percent were fires. The bureau responded to more car fires (475) than residential fires (300).

The trend is showing up in other cities, but the degree to which Portland has resisted change is unusual.

Last fall, the city hired TriData, a Washington, D.C.-area consulting firm, to evaluate whether the bureau could shift non-emergency calls from four-person trucks and engines to two-person SUVs.

“[The fire bureau’s] mission is being strained by responding to exponentially growing numbers of non-emergency medical calls,” TriData said in a 75-page report. “These calls are creating inefficiencies and costing the City of Portland significant dollars.” 

Chief Erin Janssens, who in June became Portland’s first female fire chief, acknowledges sending fire rigs to medical calls may look odd but preserves maximum flexibility.  

“We can’t cut any fire engines,” Janssens says. “They are the most valuable vehicle for a multitude of responses.” 

But TriData found other departments operate differently. 

The consultant’s report compared Portland to eight similar cities and found none sends a four-person rig to every medical call. 

Portland, the report found, “is unique in that it does respond to every call with a fire vehicle.”

ALARMING: The five-alarm Thunderbird Hotel blaze Sept. 2 made headlines, but grass fires outnumbered commercial fires 3-to-1 in Portland last year.
IMAGE: Portland Fire & Rescue


2.
Fix an inefficient medical emergency system.

Any time someone calls 911 for medical help, the call goes to the city’s Bureau of Emergency Communications, which alerts the fire bureau and a private ambulance company, American Medical Response.

As a result, fire trucks and ambulances frequently respond to the same incident, and that means at least six people—four firefighters and two AMR paramedics—are on the scene.

AMR, which has an exclusive contract with Multnomah County for medical transport, only gets paid if it drives someone to a hospital.

Dr. Gary Oxman, the health officer for Multnomah County, says that creates a “perverse incentive.”

It also makes AMR speedy. Although Portland Fire & Rescue has many more vehicles and personnel dispersed across the city, records show AMR arrives first at 43 percent of all medical calls, which often means there’s no need for the firefighters.

The TriData report highlighted an inefficiency in Portland’s system: the failure to prioritize medical calls based on severity—a practice called “stacking.” 

Instead, fire trucks roll to calls chronologically, unlike police, who respond to the most serious calls first. “Currently medical calls are not prioritized or stacked and the call is handled in the order which it is received,” the TriData report says.

That can put trucks out of position when more serious incidents occur. 

“PF&R has not adapted its delivery system to the changes in demand and does not have enough capacity to handle medical calls,” the TriData report says. “In many instances emergency response vehicles and trained EMT/paramedics are unavailable to respond to the true emergencies because they are assigned to non-emergency responses.”

Fixing that problem is complicated because Oxman has authority over the entire system, but neither the city’s 911 center nor the fire bureau reports to him, nor does he have responsibility for their budgets. The fire bureau historically responds to all calls, regardless of cost. 

And unlike AMR’s, the fire bureau’s costs are borne by taxpayers.

The system was created two decades ago, when the call volume was smaller and budgets were fatter. “It was a well-designed system,” Oxman says. “But today you are looking at some people who call 911 50 or 100 times a year. They are using 911 for health care, and that is a crisis.”

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz says the current approach is financially unsustainable. Fritz, who is helping redesign the way Portland police respond to calls involving mental health issues, says the fire bureau also needs to re-examine its approach.

“Can we respond to every call?” Fritz says. “I don’t think so.”

(Left) THE BIG CHIEF: City Commissioner Randy Leonard, 60, served as president of Firefighters Local 43 for 12 years and represented firefighters’ interests as a state legislator from 1994 to 2002. (Right) THE CRITIC: City Commissioner Dan Saltzman has pushed to reform the fire bureau and the Fire & Police Disability & Retirement Fund, including leading a referral of measures on the November ballot.
IMAGES: ronitphoto.com


3.
Force the fire bureau to use equipment that meets its actual needs.

In Portland, firefighters are more popular than schoolchildren. In 2011, local voters rejected a $548 million bond to rehab crumbling schools.  

That result was a sharp contrast to an election just six months earlier, when voters approved a fire-bureau request for $74 million to buy new equipment. 

The fire bond first had to win City Council approval. To get Saltzman’s vote, Leonard agreed the fire bureau would spend a tiny fraction of the money voters approved to test smaller, less-expensive rigs called rapid response vehicles to answer non-emergency medical calls. 

Neighboring Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue had earned attention for a similar program beginning in 2010. SUVs now respond to 7 percent of calls there.

Cheaper to buy and maintain, the SUVs would require only two firefighters to operate. 

Nonetheless, Portland Fire & Rescue said it would need to hire 13.5 new firefighters to staff four rapid response vehicles. 

That’s when the city hired TriData.

In a November 2011 draft report, obtained by WW, TriData suggested retiring two of the $1 million ladder trucks and shifting 24 firefighters to rapid response vehicles. That would save nearly $90,000 in fuel annually, reduce maintenance costs and prolong the lives of the trucks. 

“We believe the personnel can come from existing staffing,” the draft report says. 

But when the final report came out in December, that recommendation had been removed. So had another recommendation for smaller staffing at fires: 14 or 15 firefighters rather than 22. 

“We do not believe that given the limited number of working fires in the Portland system and the proximity of resources that this will have an adverse impact on employee safety or fire loss,” the draft report says.

The public never saw those recommendations.

TriData’s senior project manager, Paul Flippin, says the draft report was written hastily, included incorrect assumptions and changed when TriData received additional data from the bureau—an explanation Janssens echoes.

“The final version was not sanitized,” she says. 

There was ample evidence, nonetheless, the bureau was resistant to rapid response vehicles.

Although TriData’s report recommended low-cost SUVs, the fire bureau initially proposed buying small fire engines called “brushers” for $125,000—four times the cost of the SUVs eventually purchased. 

The city is testing two of the vehicles. Two weeks ago, Chief Janssens dropped by City Hall to show commissioners one of the new rapid response vehicles—a $33,000 Chevy Tahoe painted the same brilliant red as the $1 million truck No. 2.

She acknowledges firefighters are not keen on the economy-sized vehicles. “They want to go on fires and high-priority calls,” Janssens says. 

Saltzman says he was pleased to see the Tahoe but also concerned. 

“It had four seats in it,” Saltzman recalls. “I said to the chief, ‘I hope you’re not going to put four firefighters in there.”

CHANGE AGENT?: In 1988, Fire Chief Erin Janssens became the third female firefighter in bureau history. Today, 93 percent of firefighters are men and 82 percent are white. “We’ve come a long way in 20 years,” Janssens says. “But I’d like to see us reflect the diversity of the city.”
IMAGE: Jarod Opperman


4.
Make Portland firefighters measure up.

On key metrics, TriData found that Portland firefighters come up short. Compared to firefighters in eight other cities, Portland firefighters had the slowest response time—about 22 percent, or 1 minute and 14 seconds slower than the average. 

Janssens says Portland’s hills and bridges make response times here slower than in flat cities such as Tucson, Ariz. (Portland also did worse than cities such as Seattle, which also has its share of hills.)

“We’d like to do better,” she says.

A 2010 city audit also found the fire bureau fell short when judged by its own goal of arriving on scene in 5 minutes and 20 seconds—meeting that standard only 75 percent of the time.  

Leonard says the answer is more money—budget cuts have caused the closure of three to four stations since he joined the bureau in 1978, he says, and cost the bureau 10 ambulancelike rescue vehicles it deployed in the 1990s. 

But TriData found Portland is in the middle of the pack on spending and number of vehicles. 

Leonard is correct that there are fewer fire stations than when he joined the bureau. But there are three more than in 2002, when he became a commissioner, and about 40 more firefighters. 

Over the same period, the Police Bureau closed one of its four precincts and lost 60 sworn officers.

TriData also found that Portland firefighters’ workloads are lighter than those in other cities, with call volume 33 percent less than the average of the eight comparable cities. “Calls for service are below average in Portland both in raw numbers and as a function of population,” the TriData report concludes.

With the number of fires declining, firefighters have been told to do inspections. 

That program is not working. 

Since 2006, the number of annual inspections done by the city fire marshal’s office increased by more than 80 percent. The number of inspections done by line firefighters, however, did not increase at all. 

“There is an apparent lack of enthusiasm on the part of fire companies to do inspections,” the TriData report says.

“I’ve been pushing for years to better utilize people who are already on duty,” Saltzman says. “I’d like to see firefighters going door-to-door to check smoke alarms and help fix ones that are broken.”

Janssens says the city is limited in how many inspections a firefighter is required to do—it turns out the union demanded a cap.

“It’s a [union] contract issue,” she says.


5. Rein in the way fire-bureau employees get paid.

One third of the city’s employees who make more than $100,000 a year work for Portland Fire & Rescue. In all, 28 percent of the bureau’s employees are making six figures—not bad for a job that requires only a high-school diploma.

Firefighters benefit from a union contract studded with bonuses, called “specialty pay.” All firefighters get a 3 percent boost for being certified to drive a fire truck. They can get 6 percent more for being on the dive team, and an 11 percent bump for paramedic certification. 

Firefighters are also eligible for retirement after 25 years of service, and rarely leave the bureau before then. But the contract adds 2-percent annual bonuses for “longevity pay” after firefighters reach the 15-, 20- and 25-year marks.

Leonard says there never used to be any specialty-pay categories. “We are just catching up with other jurisdictions,” he says. 

Janssens acknowledges specialty pay contributed to big paychecks that limit her budget flexibility. “I’m looking at those,” she says of the premiums.

Those pay bonuses play into the other big driver of firefighter paychecks—overtime. 

Over the past five years, a June 2012 audit found, the fire bureau has averaged $8 million a year in overtime pay. That’s nearly $11,500 annually for each of the city’s 700 firefighters, although some have taken home more than $40,000.

Leonard says much of the overtime is necessary because when a firefighter takes a vacation or sick day, his position cannot go unfilled. Another firefighter covers working a “call shift,” at 1½ times regular pay. 

“It’s a cost of doing business,” Leonard says.

But auditors found lax oversight. 

“In many cases the culture we encountered at the [fire bureau] and that was described to us did not reflect a consistent commitment to limiting [overtime],” the audit says. 

“What we’d like to see is 1½ times the scrutiny for 1½ times the pay,” says Drummond Kahn, director of audit services. “Our audit found that hadn’t been part of the culture.”

Even high-salaried top management gets overtime. In 2010-2011, for example, division chiefs Scott Fisher, John Nohr and Mark Schmidt each earned $139,000 in base salary but also took home an average of $15,000 in overtime pay. 

Of course, firefighters can only get paid what the City Council agrees to give them.

“It’s a testament to their bargaining power,” Saltzman says. “And a failure of the Council to be more hard-nosed.”

ROUTINE CALL: A fire engine responds with lights and sirens to an apparently intoxicated man in the South Park Blocks last week, one of thousands of non-emergency calls the bureau will respond to this year. “What’s happening is challenging our response times and reliability,” Chief Erin Janssens says.
IMAGE: WW Staff Photo


6.
Demand more accountability within the bureau.

Firefighters love tradition. Portland Fire & Rescue has its own museum, a shuttered fire station at Southeast 35th Avenue and Belmont Street, staffed by a firefighter.

Part of the tradition is that the bureau is staffed by white males, many of them related. There’s a history of multigenerational families—recently retired Chief John Klum says there has been a Klum in the fire bureau since the 1920s.

Some firefighters say family relationships are more important than merit when it comes to issues such as specialty pay. The criteria for who gets assigned to specialty-pay positions contain extraordinary latitude.

“To be eligible for specialty pay,” the union contract says, “the employee must be assigned to a specialty pay assignment by the Chief or the Chief’s designee.”

Some firefighters grumble the latitude fuels cronyism.

“That language obviously creates an opportunity for favoritism,” Saltzman says. 

A cheating scandal within the bureau that was exposed last year laid bare such concerns.

Firefighters must pass promotional exams if they want to be in line for higher ranks and more pay. Last December, Leonard ordered an investigation into alleged cheating on the promotional exams. 

The investigation found that recently retired Division Chief Scott Fisher had improperly given another firefighter, Caleb Currie, an old test.

Leonard acknowledged that verbally sharing test questions was widespread when he was a firefighter. But he had never heard of hard-copy tests being shared. “I am very troubled by Mr. Fisher’s actions as they serve to undermine the integrity of Portland Fire & Rescue’s promotional system,” Leonard wrote in a Feb. 29 response to the investigation.

Leonard and then-Chief Klum found Fisher had not altered test results and concluded there was no larger problem.

Some firefighters rejected that conclusion. Fire Lt. Paul Bieker and Capt. Tracy Cleys, on behalf of themselves and 10 other firefighters, fought to have the results of 2010 and 2011 promotional exams overturned.

“You wouldn’t think your friends would be cheaters,” Bieker said to Portland’s Civil Service Board on Sept. 6. “You’d at least hope they’d all be honest.”

That board declined to hear the appeal on technical grounds.

Bieker’s testimony highlights what many see as the essential unfairness of a bureau whose leadership issues promotions based on friendship and family ties, rather than merit.

The testing problems are not over. In a memo earlier this month, Janssens addressed “numerous issues that surfaced from the lieutenant’s [exam].”

Some candidates on the lieutenant’s exam were questioned by panels of three interviewers, as is standard, but some by only two, leading to accusations the outcome was predetermined. 

“Portland’s not unique, but ours is a bureau where sons follow their fathers,” Saltzman says. “I think a lot of their interest is the preservation of staffing and opportunities for family members.”

Leonard dismisses concerns about cronyism. 

“I have never seen a more competitive environment than Portland Fire,” he says. 

As for the firefighters who suspect they were cheated out of specialty pay or promotional opportunities, Leonard says, “There are just people who can’t accept that they aren’t as good as they think they are.”


Change isn’t going to come from within the fire bureau. In January, for example, Leonard and top fire officials predicted in a budget document that the number of fires will suddenly jump by 20 percent next year—inexplicably ending a decades-long decline.

Will either of the mayoral candidates challenge the city’s most popular bureau?

State Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland) has earned the endorsement of the firefighters’ union. He says he’s in favor of reducing the number of non-emergency medical calls to which fire crews respond.

“Every call needs to be answered,” he says. “I don’t know that it needs to be responded to by a firefighter.”

Smith says one of the initiatives he has proposed in the mayor’s race—establishing a 311 non-emergency number as cities such as New York and Minneapolis have done—could lighten the fire bureau’s workload.

“We are facing a growing demand for services and shrinking revenue, and have to be thinking about restructuring all city services,” Smith says. “That’s hardest with the public-safety bureaus because we don’t want to sacrifice response times.”

His opponent, Charlie Hales, battled the fire bureau and the union when he served as city commissioner from 1992 to 2002. He angered firefighters by hiring a chief from outside the bureau—something not done since—and insisted on greater diversity in hiring. Union members still dislike him.

“Tradition-bound organizations don’t change easily or quickly, but we have to face the reality that the majority of their work is medical calls,” Hales says. “Sending a big diesel engine with four firefighters is not efficient and may not be sustainable.”

Hales says he will bring accountability to the emergency response system, aligning Multnomah County’s control of it with the city’s responsibility to pay for it. He also wants to end duplication, such as the fire bureau and county both patrolling the rivers. Hales says he will work with county Chairman Jeff Cogen to make the city-county approach more efficient.

“One of the reasons I think I’ll be effective is I understand the system and do not accept the status quo,” Hales says, “and the byzantine setup we have now.” 

 
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