story by Ryan Saylor
The Fort Smith Airport Commission voted Tuesday (June 24) to follow the recommendation of airport staff and form its own fire department to serve the airport in the absence of the 188th Wing's firefighting mission, which will end October 1 now that the Air National Guard's remaining A-10s have left Fort Smith.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires airports to have varying levels of on-hand firefighting personnel and capabilities. According to Airport Executive Director John Parker, Fort Smith will meet FAA standards by employing four full-time employees with an estimated two additional part-time employees and possible on-call, as needed staff to cover shifts.
Individuals hired to work at the airport fire department will work 20 hour shifts, one day on and two days off, Parker told the commission.
While the requirements for firefighters to be certified to work in an airport fire department are more stringent than those required for typical municipal departments, Parker said he feels like the airport will be able to find more than enough qualified staff once it begins advertising for the open positions as soon as this week.
"We'll probably advertise statewide, so I think we'll get (a number of applicants), but that remains to be seen. If the commission approves this course of action, we will immediately start to advertise and begin accepting applications.”
For applicants interested in joining the new Fort Smith Regional Airport fire department, Parker said applications will need to be submitted by July 15 to be considered. The time, he said, allows the airport to not only conduct interviews, but also conduct vetting of applicants who will need background checks and security clearances. Once applicants are selected and offers are made, Parker said he would like to have firefighters on staff by August in order to ensure as much training time as possible for the new firefighters with the departing firefighters employed by the 188th.
The time is also necessary, he said, for the airport and its new firefighters to update the airport's new emergency plan, as well as updating mutual aid agreements with surrounding fire departments and first responders.
As for total cost, a memo to the commission placed the estimate for staffing the airport at between $250,000 and $300,000. The money, Parkers said, is not something the airport has without diving into deficit spending. The airport will have to dip into reserves to cover the expenses associated with manning the fire department, but he said the airport was in a financial position to do so.
The one saving grace from a budgetary standpoint, he said, was that the airport is working to finalize a contract with the Air National Guard Bureau to use equipment it has on site at the Fort Smith Air National Guard Base on airport grounds. Should the airport have had to purchase its own pumper trucks and cover other equipment costs, the total, Parker said, could have run as high as $850,000 per year.
But because of the arrangement with the Air National Guard, all the worst case scenarios are off the table and the airport is moving forward, he said.
"We certainly didn't ask to get into this job, but I believe this is the best way for us to proceed to do this required staffing.”
In other business, the commission also approved the appointment of Mac McGhee as the new airport commission chairman, Larry Schiffner as vice chairman and Dr. James Kelly as treasurer.
The commission also:
• Approved a contract with Chemtek Inc. in the amount of $46,933 for runway rubber removal and painting; and
• Approved an increase in T-Hangar rental rates. The rates will increase approximately 15%, to $250 per month, effective on new leases. Current leaseholders, Parker said, would remain at rates agreed to in already established contracts.