PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – An independent study by Citygate found that the City of Portland is falling behind in adequate staffing of front-line firefighters — slowing down their response times.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has admitted they are short on firefighters, but assured residents they’re mandating they work overtime to maintain safe staffing.
Firefighters told KOIN 6 News the city has been forcing them to work overtime to make up for the staffing crisis over the last two years. Meanwhile, they have continued to respond to an increase in emergencies throughout the pandemic.
Firefighters say City Council’s strategy is reaching unsustainable levels in order to keep the city safe. The president of the Portland Fire Fighters Association, Isaac McLennan, noted many firefighters are forced to work up to 90 to 100 hours a week.
“This is a crisis caused by errors. We closed training four or five years ago. That was the first domino to fall. And ever since then, we’ve been in a staffing crisis,” McLennan explained.
McLennan says, they can’t hire and train fast enough to keep up with people retiring and quitting. In the meantime, firefighters are asking for an incentive to work overtime.
“We receive a phone call that we’re going to stay working for up to 24 more hours against our consent. And if we don’t do that, they write us up, may discipline us,” McLennan said.
While McLennan says they would like to receive double-time pay in those cases, Commissioner Hardesty said “as an elected leader, a fiscally responsible leader, it gives me nightmares about paying people double time for doing their job.”
McLennan noted “we only have the number of firefighters are here today. And so, question is, what does she want to do as fire commissioner? Does she want to force firefighters to work against their will and then discipline them when they say ‘no, I need to go home and take care of my family’? Or is she willing to incentivize the workers? We have to come back to work voluntarily.”
The study recommended a few ways to improve public safety in Portland including permanently funding 16 full-time positions; restoring Engine 23 with full staffing; and adding a fire station in Southeast Portland.
“This is not new information to us, it merely echoes what we have been telling city officials and the fire commissioner for some time,” McLennan said in a PFFA press release. “We can all see the city of Portland has been exploding in population for the last 10 years and continuing to grow, yet no new firefighters have been added, in fact we fight to keep current positions from budget cuts and no new fire stations have been added especially in underserved communities.”
Portland Fire & Rescue Chief Sara Boone told KOIN 6 News “The Citygate study not only explained in detail the challenges that our members face in performing critical work, but also highlights the exemplary professionalism and dedication of our bureau staff. We take the findings and recommendations in the report as a call to action and, as such, our executive team is constructing an implementation plan to prioritize and operationalize the report recommendations. We expect to have the plan completed by October 31, in time for consideration during the upcoming budget development process.”
In a statement to KOIN 6 News, Commissioner Hardesty said “I want to acknowledge just how difficult the last few years have been for our Portland Fire Fighters, who have stepped up in every way they have been asked to serve with incredible bravery – whether putting out fires locally, helping combat wildfires statewide, or vaccinating our community during a global pandemic.”
The commissioner added “our Fire Fighters have performed this work despite decades of underinvestment, especially in comparison to other first responders. Since becoming Fire Commissioner, I have consistently worked to improve the wellness and working conditions of our employees, have supported piloting a new schedule, and have successfully prevented budget cuts and station closures. My office worked with Portland Fire & Rescue to conduct the CityGate evaluation and work session so we can make data informed investments that will strengthen and modernize Portland Fire & Rescue. We have the best Fire Fighters in the country and they need a budget that matches that.”
“I hope this evaluation will help us persuade my colleagues and the public that we need to increase funding to Portland Fire & Rescue for the safety of our community and our employees,” Hardesty said.