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Portland Fire & Rescue receives $2M grant amid staffing shortage

The grant money from FEMA will go entirely toward re-staffing Station 23, Portland's only 2-person fire station.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Portland Fire & Rescue announced Wednesday that they received a $2.1 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The money will go entirely to Fire Station 23 near Southeast 13th and Powell Boulevard. The station closed back in 2010 then later reopened in 2017 with just a two-person crew for medical calls.

“Honestly I was shocked, amazed and excited,” said fire fighter Isaac McLennen, who’s also president of the Portland Fire Fighters’ Association. McLennen said he pushed for the city to apply for the grant in January.

“Station 23 has been without a four-person fire engine and we've been fighting this for the past five years,” he said.

McLennen pointed to an incident last October when a fire destroyed an abandoned building and damaged two homes in Southeast Portland. It happened just a mile away from Station 23, but their two person team couldn't respond. 

The SAFER grant will fully staff Station 23 for three years.

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“That help is coming faster and they're going to get the right resource in the right amount of time,” said McLennen.

Despite celebration over the grant, McLennen said Portland Fire & Rescue is still experiencing a staffing crisis and is down 29 frontline fire fighters from being fully staffed. He said vacation and sick time mean some days there aren't enough crews to cover every spot. 

As a temporary fix, city leaders and the firefighters’ union agreed to a mandatory overtime solution, but that went on for longer than two years.

McLennan said it's no longer sustainable and starting Sept. 22, the union is no longer bound to that agreement.

“Fire fighters being forced to work (overtime) really, really has devastated our morale and we're concerned about the safety of forcing people to work,” McLennan said.

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To compensate for staffing shortages the city has been temporarily grounding some resources at two southeast Portland stations — Fire Station 19 in the Montavilla neighborhood and station 11 in the Lents neighborhood. 

McLennan said those neighborhoods are responsible for the most 911 calls in the city. For that reason, each of the two stations have a two-person rescue rig and a four-person fire engine. 

On lean days, McLennen said the city is choosing not to staff the two-person rescue rigs, leaving just the fire engine to respond to calls. McLennen said it’s happened on 110 days since late December; a plan he said is also not sustainable.

“Every time they close a fire rig, that means those neighborhoods are less safe,” he said.

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