Mayor: Move would save money, put focus on medical response

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue began using smaller emergency response vehicles in 2010. Paramedic Steve Heisel checked out one of the specially-equipped Toyota FJ Cruisers when they were first unveiled.Portland doesn't usually follow the suburbs or rural areas when making policy and budget decisions. In fact, at the Oregon Legislature, city lobbyists frequently argue that Portland has unique needs because of its size and population mix.

But Mayor Charlie Hales followed the lead of Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue when he prepared his proposed budget for Portland Fire & Rescue. Hales wants to replace four, large fire engines with smaller vehicles designed for medical response.

TVF&R began deploying smaller vehicles a few years ago after an analysis showed most of its calls were medical-related. The special district serves nine smaller cities and unincorporated portions of Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties.

TVF&R first deployed four specially equipped Toyota FJ Cruisers in May 2010. They were designed to respond to certain medical calls and emergency situations that don't require a traditional fire engine with a four-person crew.

When Hales unveiled his budget last week he said replacing the engines with smaller vehicles would accomplish two purposes. First, it would help align Portland Fire & Rescue with its "core mission," which is responding to medical emergencies. Second, it would save money, since smaller vehicles are less expensive to buy, staff and operate. Fire engines are staffed around the clock by four-person crews. The smaller units only require two people.

A budget document released by the mayor's office says the switch is part of a restructuring strategy intended to eliminate 26 positions and save $2.8 million.

Officials with TVF&R say cost was not a consideration when they deployed smaller vehicles.

"TVF&R is a data-driven organization," according to one internal 2010 document on the decision. "We constantly analyze our response data (number of calls, types of calls, response time, location, etc.) to make strategic deployment decisions. Like most fire departments across the nation, our data confirms that medical incidents and public service calls are increasing, and fires are decreasing."

The TVF&R deployment was not controversial. But Hale's proposal does not sit well with everyone. Alan Ferschweiler, president of the Portland Firefighters Association, worries that eliminating four fire engines will reduce response time on some fire calls. He thinks the smaller vehicles should supplement, not replace, larger ones.

"Critical calls like fires and heart attacks require a four-person crew," Ferschweiler says.

And, he says, the union contract might require the city to bargain over the change in staffing levels. Hales disagrees, saying the chief has the authority to assign and reassign firefighters.

Ferschweiler says the union will present its case to Hales and the City Council during the next month, and will not decide whether to challenge the decision until after it is made.

More analysis needed

Despite the potential controversy, Hales appears to already have the two additional votes needed to approve his proposed budget for PF&R on the council. Commissioners Dan Saltzman supported the move to smaller units the day Hales unveiled his budget. Saltzman said he pushed for it when helping write the public safety levy.

Commissioner Steve Novick was interested in changing the deployment of PF&R even before he was elected to the council. Since taking office, he has talked with TVF&R to get a better understanding of what they're doing. Novick said he can think of a few stations where the switch might make sense, especially at night, when call loads usually decrease. He wants to hear from the firefighters union before making a final decision, however.

The Portland City Council came to the same conclusion as TVF&R several years ago. It submitted a $72.4 million public safety levy to voters in November 2010 that included funds for Portland Fire & Rescue to buy four smaller vehicles.

Although the levy was approved, only two of the smaller vehicles have been purchased so far, and they have not replaced any larger fire engines. The converted Chevy Tahoes have been added to the vehicle fleet. Hales' proposed budget essentially would require PF&R to purchase two more smaller vehicles and replace four fire engines with them.

Which engines would be replaced has yet to be determined. According to Hales' spokesman Dana Haynes, the mayor has directed Fire Chief Erin Janssens to do an analysis of call patterns to determine which stations respond to medical emergencies most often. It is scheduled to be completed before the council votes on the PF&R budget, Haynes says.

TVF&R did the same kind of analysis before making its changes. Haynes says Hales considered their decision — and similar changes made by other fire bureaus across the country — when preparing his proposed budget.

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