Fort Smith airport officials consider fire service options without 188th support

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

The departure of the of the A-10 flying mission at the 188th Fighter Wing means more than just the flying Razorbacks are leaving Fort Smith's airport, so is firefighting protection for the flying public.

According to Fort Smith Regional Airport Executive Director John Parker, the airport will lose its firefighting protection once the Air National Guard shuts down firefighting operations on Oct. 1. That means that between now and the beginning of October, the airport has to figure out how to comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations stating that commercial airports with passenger service must have firefighter protection on site during operating hours.

The airport has two options, Parker said. The first is to contract out to a private vendor or the Fort Smith Fire Department for protection. The other option is to form its own fire department to serve the airport.

Cost estimates are unknown, but Parker told airport commissioners during a study session Monday (June 2) that the airport having to provide its own fire protection services would likely result in a deficit for the airport.

"We have a limit on revenues and available funding for this particular mission. I believe any course of action that we go into without generating a new revenue source somewhere will place us in deficit spending, but not to the extent that we initially thought."

According to Parker, the budget prepared for the current fiscal year was created with the assumption that the airport would have to begin its firefighting mission in the middle of the year at what was expected to be around $350,000 in costs. Instead, the Guard extended the mission of its fire department to Oct. 1, giving the airport additional time to figure out how to move forward.

Master Sergeant Terry Edwards, fire chief of the 188th's fire department, said two of its trucks, along with the fire station within the ANG base, would be used by the new airport fire department as part of an agreement in the works between the military and the airport. With the agreement, Parker said the airport would save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year by not having to finance the purchase of new fire trucks.

Parker said the airport would not raise rates on commercial passengers as a way to balance the budget or return to profitability, but instead would likely work out a deal to raise the lease rate on the National Guard, though nothing is certain at this point.

In discussions about which route to go, Parker presented commissioners with the facts about all different routes that could be undertaken by the airport.

Regarding contracting services with a private company, Parker said whichever company won the bid for a potential contract would take care of meeting certifications for firefighters and maintaining equipment, but said the cost could be prohibitive.

"Remember, on the estimates that we receive, we're talking about a company that's not doing this for civic service, they're doing this for profit. So those costs will be a little bit higher. But private companies … would be responsible for providing the elements of the contract."

Should the city be contracted, Edwards said it had eight former 188th firefighters on staff with the Fort Smith Fire Department with certifications necessary to meet FAA requirements. But Parker said with either the city or a private contractor, either may choose to have higher staffing levels than is required by FAA regulation, which would cost the airport a considerable amount more money than creating its own fire department.

Should the airport develop its own department, Parker said the airport would likely hire four firefighters who would work varied shifts. The fire department would be in operations about 20 hours per day, or 7,300 hours per year. On average, each firefighter would likely work a total of 2,080 hours per year with some overlapping coverage.

While the ANG has several firefighters on staff 24 hours per day, Parker said it would be possible to have only one firefighter on duty at many times since FAA regulations for an index B airport, the ranking for Fort Smith Regional, only require a single individual able to man equipment on duty during operational hours.

Wages for any staff to be stationed at the fire department have not yet been determined, Parker said, as everything is still in the discovery phase as the commission decides which route to take.

Regardless of which route the commission chooses, Parker said should a major emergency occur at the airport, it would have to rely on the assistance of Fort Smith's fire department, which could quickly respond from fire houses on Dallas and Phoenix Avenue.

But he said the last incident that resulted in an actual emergency response was a wheel fire on a commercial jetliner in 2009, adding that the reduction in staffing levels from the ANG to an airport-run fire department would not put the flying public at any greater risk.

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"I only say all that to say this is not an issue where we would have to run to the runway every day or every week. It's a rare occurrence, actually, in the long run and even rarer that it goes to the true extent that we have a true emergency on the ground. It's one of those services that we never want to have to employ but we need to be prepared to employ it based on the FAA requirements."

Parker said adding the firefighting mission to the airport's responsibilities would cause many changes over the coming months, including updating the airport's emergency plan and the capital improvement plan with the FAA, which will require the addition of a new fire department building at a reimbursement rate of 90% from the FAA, leaving 10% of the cost to the airport.

Parker reminded commissioners that Fort Smith was not alone in the challenges it faced as a result of the change in firefighting status at the airport.

"We're not alone in all of this. There are a number of airports that are going through the same situation where aircraft were removed from tenant National Guard installations or civilian airplanes. So we're not the first to have to go through this."

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Prior Planning

Everyone knew that the Air Guard was leaving for years so where was the plan to replace the fire service people?