Firefighters voice concerns about airport safety

NORTH BEND, Ore.-- Tensions were somewhat heated Thursday morning as North Bend firefighters confronted Coos County Airport Commissioners with their concerns over possible changes to the airport's fire coverage.

Commissioners are exploring alternatives to the current coverage provided by North Bend fire crews because they feel the city is charging them too much for the service.

"The City of North Bend came to us wanting to charge $215,000 a year without a cap to maintain service," said Joe Benetti, board of commissioners chairman. "We think it should be much less than that. That offer is too much for us not only in what they are wanting to charge, but also in what services we need here."

When the original shared service agreement was put in place more than a decade ago, the airport had five flights a day during peak travel season, but because of changes in air service, the airport only operates one commercial flight in non-summer months.

Commissioners feel they are paying the price to maintain services they no longer use.

By a vote of 3-2 a counter offer was made to the city for $145,000 to hopefully keep service in place for one more year. During that year, commissioners hope that a long-term agreement between the city and the airport can take place.

But if one isn't established, firefighters are concerned that the airport could explore a dangerous alternative, and many say they already are.

Firefighters came to Thursday's meeting fire up and ready to discuss what they believe is a problem with one alternative the airport is exploring.

Airport maintenance employees have been sent to paid firefighter training days by the airport to be not only prepared for an emergency, but to also be prepared to act as firefighters if talks break down between North Bend and the airport. The training would make the employees FAA compliant in emergency response.

"We came here because we are concerned about safety," said Rick Cooper, North Bend Professional Firefighters president. "We need to have professional firefighters here at this airport under Title 139."

The Federal Aviation Administration requires the airport to have fire crews ready 15 minutes before and after each commercial flight carrying more than 30 passengers. Right now that is handled by North Bend firefighters, and they provide coverage for 30 minutes before and after.

Right now there is only one flight on a Skywest Airlines Embraer 120 operating as United Express. This June through November, the Embraer 120 will be joined by a Skywest-United Express Canadair Regional Jet CRJ-200. These two flights must have Title 139 compliance in order to land in North Bend.

If the current agreement were to fall through, maintenance employees who have received special training similar to North Bend firefighters could fill the role of first responders on-call that the FAA requires.

"There is nothing wrong with us wanting to be prepared," Commissioner Mike Lehman said. "We hope we can keep our shared service agreement with the city in place, but we need them trained just in case. All we are trying to do is prepare for the worst."

If the airport is not in compliance with Title 139, it will not be able to have Skywest Airlines service. The airport was not in compliance back in the 1980s, and it ended up losing its commercial service safety certification. A few years later, it was able to get it back.

Firefighters are worried the FAA may not be so willing to give the certificate back for a third time if the airport falls out of compliance again.

"We're on our second strike," Cooper said. "This is like baseball pretty much. Three strikes, and we might as well be out because I don't see the FAA being as generous a third time around."

The airport board reached out to the Coos Bay Fire Department for a potentially cheaper bit for fire coverage, but the airport was told by Coos Bay Fire Chief Stan Gibson that the costs would be more than $400,000.

Chairman Benetti said the airport is hopeful it can reach an agreement with the city to have the required services in place at a lower price.

"If our personnel is cross trained its better for everyone else," Benetti said. "No one is saying we don't want the protection of professionally trained fire fighter because we do."

The City of North Bend has given the airport until April 30 to respond to its pricing demands. There is no word yet if they have accepted the counter offer of $145,000.