PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The response to a fire that left three homes uninhabitable was a result of staffing issues at Portland Fire & Rescue, according to the department’s union president.
On Monday, the first firefighters to respond to SE 26th and Division St. were from Fire Station 23 but, because that station only has enough personnel to man an emergency response SUV, they couldn’t take action to fight the flames, instead having to wait for a fire engine from another station to arrive on scene to put out the two-alarm fire.
“It makes a really big impact,” Union President Isaac McLellan said. “The quicker we can get a fire engine there, the quicker we can get water on the fire, the better [chance] we’re going to have for people’s survival.”
McLellan points to two fires in October of 2021 that saw similar delays in response to two fires within a few weeks of each other. On October 5, firefighters responded to a fire on Hawthorne Blvd., where two firefighters were hurt from an explosion that happened in the fire.
On October 24, firefighters responded to a house fire on SE Powell Blvd. The home was completely destroyed and two homes nearby were damaged.
The Station 23 crew arrived at 2:00 p.m, according to Portland Fire & Rescue. The Fire engine arrived at 2:01. Not a huge period of time but McLennan says, structure fires can double in size every 60 seconds.
“Not only does it jeopardize our safety as firefighters, because it allows the fire to get larger, but it also jeopardizes the City of Portland [and] the residents,” McLellan said.
The issues at Station 23 go back for years. The building was shuttered in 2010 with the crew moving to the newly built Station 21 on the Willamette River. It was reopened in 2017, McLellan says in recognition that area of the city needed a better presence to respond to emergencies in the Southeast neighborhood.
Only one of the three daily shifts were staffed adequately enough to man a fire engine. It takes four people minimum to man a fire engine, in order to maintain a two-inside-two-outside safety parameter, mandated by firefighting regulations.
In 2021, the only four-person crew at Station 23 was cut, leaving three two-person crews throughout the day that, according to the Portland Fire website, “designed to provide emergency medical services.”
Given the “unique” mix of residential, rail, and industrial space in the area around the fire station, McLellan says, the neighborhood deserves a fully-staffed fire station.
“We’ve been doing it now for way too long. So it’s time to put that station back. It’s time to get the residents of that community all those neighborhoods that are impacted, same fire protection that everybody else in the city Portland.”
McLellan said, he’s been urging city council to address the staffing disparity at the station for years. Jo Ann Hardesty is the fire commissioner and says, she’s opposed cuts to the agency.
“There are currently no plans to cut existing fire station personnel and we are committed to providing the best possible care and service as we look for ways to improve,” Hardesty said in a statement.
Hardesty and Portland Fire & Rescues full statements can be viewed at the bottom of this article.
It comes as firefighters are required to work on mandatory overtime to properly staff the city’s 31 fire stations, given an overall shortage firefighters.
On a given day, 169 firefighters are on-shift across the city. McLellan says that number has not increased in 20 years.
“Keeping in mind, the population has grown for that same 20 years,” McLellan said.
In the agency’s statement to KOIN 6, they said there are no current plans to increase staffing at Station 23, but also pointed to a study from a consultant hired by Portland Fire & Rescue to look at population and density trends in the city, in an effort to evaluate where firefighting resources should be located. The latest comprehensive study was conducted in 2006 and updates in 2010.
McLellan believes that study will “absolutely” show more staffing is needed at Station 23.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s full statement:
“In recent budget sessions, I have been an advocate to not decrease the funding from Portland Fire & Rescue.
We invested into fully expanding Portland Street Response which will help first responders and Firefighters by shifting some of the calls to Portland Street Response.
Like many first response agencies across Oregon, we are operating with a staffing shortage. However, we are able to maintain our daily staffing with mandatory overtime. There has been two lateral recruitment opportunities including one that ends July 22nd, Portland Fire and Rescue has been out to community events engaging with community and hosting a recruitment booth,
There was just a 3 day camp for young women to learn the skills of being a firefighter and that is to promote diversity in the work force as well as motivate young women that they too can be Firefighters or first responders.
There are currently no plans to cut existing fire station personnel and we are committed to providing the best possible care and service as we look for ways to improve.”
Portland Fire & Rescue:
“Due to our growing and changing city, a consultant was hired by Portland Fire and Rescue to evaluate the population and density around Portland in order to recommend enhancements to fire response resources. Current staffing at the 31 fire stations across the city are based on the latest of these studies which was conducted in 2006 and adjusted with a supplemental study in 2010. This new study is due to be presented to City Council in August.”