Unless city seeks a FEMA grant, cuts could trim fire bureau staff

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Firefighters Association President Alan Ferschweiler is worried about possible layoffs of up to 26 firefighters later this year.Firefighters are warning about a potential threat to public safety under the Portland Fire & Rescue budget that just took effect.

The budget approved by the City Council will lay off 26 firefighters in October. Their jobs could be saved if PF&R receives a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, but there is no guarantee the city will apply for it.

“We support the grant application, but if the city doesn’t get the grant, we need to have a community discussion before making a final decision on the 26 positions,” says Alan Ferschweiler, president of the Portland Firefighters Association.

Those potential cuts are in addition to staff reductions authorized in the new budget at the Kenton and Parkrose fire stations. The number of on-duty firefighters was reduced from eight to four at both stations. Four firefighters from each station were reassigned to new, smaller rapid response vehicles designed to handle medical emergencies instead of fires.

“Public safety is being compromised at both stations,” Ferschweiler says.

But Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is in charge of the fire bureau, says the budget does not compromise public safety. Saltzman is hopeful the city will receive the FEMA grant, although the rules governing it are still being written. And he says a new multipurpose vehicle being deployed at the Kenton and Parkrose stations will still allow firefighters there to do their jobs.

“The council is aware of the union’s concerns, and we just have a different opinion,” Saltzman says.

Mayor Charlie Hales proposed the changes in the fire bureau budget for different reasons.

The rapid response vehicle transfers are designed to better reflect the calls that firefighters respond to these days. Most are medical emergencies, not fires. Two vehicles at the Kenton and Parkrose stations — a water pumping en gine and a ladder truck — are being replaced with a single unit that can do both jobs. It is commonly called a “quint,” which is short for quintuple combination pumper.

Ferschweiler says quints are not full replacements for engine and ladder trucks, however. He says an engine and ladder truck staffed with four firefighters each should fight every fire. One team of four searches for people potentially trapped in the burning structure while the other team of four fights the fire.

“Full-service emergency fire service consists of two teams of four highly trained firefighters, not one team of four. Residents in Kenton and Parkrose are seeing a reduction in service,” Ferschweiler says.

The 26 potential layoffs loom to help close a $20.3 million general fund gap and balance the city budget that took effect July 1. The council approved the budget on June 20 without making significant changes in the funding for any bureau, including PF&R.

The budget envisions PF&R applying for a FEMA grant for $4.89 million to preserve the 26 jobs for two years. The grant application will need council approval. Although that would seem like a no-brainer, there are some reasons why the council might balk. The rules — which are still being written — could require the city to continue funding the positions for a certain number of years after the grant expires. The council might be reluctant to agree to such a commitment, given the financial problems it has faced in recent years.

“We need to see the rules before making a final decision,” Saltzman says.

If the city does not apply for or receive the grant, Saltzman says the council will need to discuss the layoffs again before they occur. He does not know where the money would be found to prevent them, however.

It has not yet been decided how Portland Fire & Rescue will adjust to the 26 layoffs if the FEMA grant is not approved. The reductions could be the same as those at the Kenton and Parkrose stations. It takes 13 positions to staff a single four-person vehicle around the clock, including one position to fill in for illnesses or vacations.

The 26 positions were targeted for elimination to save approximately $1.8 million in the 2013-14 fiscal budget. It provides $584,874 in so-called bridge financing to fund the jobs until October. But no money is set aside to continue the position after that if the FEMA grant is not received.

“The additional reductions would reduce response times somewhere in the city. We just don’t know where yet,” Ferschweiler says.

Congress originally authorized FEMA to offer Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grants to fire departments and volunteer firefighter organizations to help them increase the number of trained, “front line” firefighters available in their communities. The Assistance Firefighter Grant Program was added later to help fire departments facing budget cuts retain their firefighters. It was included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013.

According to City Budget Office Director Andrew Scott, the fire bureau will need to give layoff notices to the 26 firefighters whose jobs are targeted for elimination to apply for the grant. The timing of the notices has not yet been determined.

Shakeup at bureaus

The situation is complicated by the way this year’s budget was prepared. Hales took all bureaus from the other council members shortly after taking office in January and kept them until he released his proposed budget. Although he reassigned them before the final budget vote, there was little time for the commissioners to fully understand the budgets for their new bureaus, let alone propose changes. Saltzman received Portland Fire & Rescue, and he is getting up to speed on its issues.

The current fire bureau budget approved by the council includes $88.5 million in general fund dollars. Although that is only slightly less than the $88.7 million in last year’s budget, Scott says it actually is $4.4 million less than the amount needed to maintain last year’s service levels because of inflation, salary increases and other cost increases.

The new budget authorized 698 full-time equivalent positions in the fire bureau, a reduction of 34.8 from last year’s budget. Most of those positions were unfilled, however.

The only employees whose jobs actually changed were two carpenters transferred to other bureaus and three full-time, nonsworn workers whose hours were reduced to part-time.

But all of the 26 position targeted for elimination in October are filled, meaning 26 firefighters will be laid off if the fire bureau does not receive the FEMA grant and the council does not come up with $1.8 million more to fund them in November.

The total city general fund budget fell from $403 million to $397 million. Scott says the new budget is actually $20 million less than what it would have cost to maintain last year’s service levels, however. The number of general fund FTE positions fell from 5653 to 5522, a reduction of 131. Because most of those positions were not filled, only around 26 employees are expected to be laid off, not counting the 26 firefighters who could loss their jobs in October.

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