Staffing shortages at Portland Fire Bureau impacting firefighter morale

Persistent staffing issues at the Portland Fire Bureau are eating away at firefighter morale, according to the union that represents them.
Published: Oct. 31, 2022 at 6:28 AM PDT
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KPTV) - Persistent staffing issues at the Portland Fire Bureau are eating away at firefighter morale, according to the union that represents them.

“We’re exhausted,” said Isaac McLennan, President of the Portland Firefighters’ Association. “Most of us are working 70, 80, 90 hours or more a week, with no end in sight.”

McLennan said the current situation puts both firefighters and the community they serve at risk, in part because the Fire Bureau has taken to regularly closing two-person rescue units because there aren’t enough firefighters to go around. McLennan said there have been more than 100 such closures since December.

SEE ALSO: ‘Asking the city to come to the table’: Portland firefighters ask for more staffing after study

Faced with this reality, some firefighters have opted to simply quit. Ryan Rossing, who left the Fire Bureau in late 2021, was one of five firefighters who resigned just that year, according to city records.

“They have stretched Portland Fire so thin that there’s nothing left to give. That’s my honest opinion,” said Rossing.

This summer, the union sent a proposal Fire Bureau Commissioner Joann Hardesty, suggesting increases in overtime pay as an incentive for weary firefighters. According to Hardesty’s staff, the commissioner “deeply considered” the proposal, but ultimately agreed with Fire Chief Sara Boone who opposed the idea.

In a September email to Hardesty, Boone wrote “PF&R cannot support this incentive proposal by using 1.6 million dollars from our existing budget. To do so would negatively impact firefighter safety, performance, and operations through deferred purchases of essential materials and services.”

At the time, Boone told Hardesty her preference was for the bureau to shift its focus to aggressive entry-level and lateral firefighter recruitments.

McLennan, a 20-year veteran of the bureau, said recruitment has been a challenge, and estimated the bureau is currently hiring at a rate roughly half of what it was when he was hired.

“It’s dangerous. It’s a hard job. A job where you have to work 24 hours a day and obviously now you’re working 90 some hours a week. It’s not sustainable,” said McLennan. “Certainly people don’t like the notion that you’re going to have to be forced to work. That’s not an attractive thing as an employee.”

Commissioner Hardesty has said she will be requesting more funding for the Fire Bureau during the city’s fall budget adjustments, including funding to hire 13 additional firefighters. That request would need to be approved by city commissioners.