Fire and emergency services will return to the 188th Wing based at the Fort Smith Regional Airport thanks to a decision by Lt. Gen. Leon Scott “Catfish” Rice. The move could also help the city-owned airport reduce its costs for fire and rescue support.
Rice has determined that the 188th Wing based in Fort Smith requires full-time fire suppression capabilities. Rice, who is director of the Air National Guard and based in the Pentagon, sent a “Fire Emergency Services Risk Analysis” team to Fort Smith on Dec. 28-29, according to a Jan. 18 e-mail from Rice to the office of U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers.
“That Risk Analysis Team discovered that the 188th Wing is not compliant with the Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 6055.06 concerning its facilities and fire suppression,” Rice wrote. “Therefore, I have directed my staff to implement a short-term solution by validating 15 temporary technicians at the 188th Wing to be used for fire/EMS support. Funding is to be out of existing AR technician funds; if more funding is required, the Air National Guard Readiness Center will resource the wing accordingly.”
The Fort Smith Regional Airport has struggled to maintain fire and emergency services following the June 2014 change of mission for the 188th. The Air Guard unit changed from a manned flying mission to an unmanned mission focused on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Prior to the mission change, the FAA allowed the airport to lease the land for $1 a year to the 188th. In turn, the 188th provided services to the facility – like aircraft rescue and firefighting assistance – and also reimbursed it for maintenance and infrastructure upgrades. This arrangement resulted in a “cost avoidance” to the Fort Smith airport of $400,000 a year, which was significant especially in light of the facility’s small-by-comparison $2.6 million operating budget. When the 188th no longer had airplanes on the base, military officials pulled the plug on firefighting services.
It’s that fire and rescue service that has been a financial burden on the airport. Airport Director John Parker has said the airport budget is operating with a $360,000 loss each year now that the arrangement is no longer in place. However, Parker said the fire unit returning to the 188th is for structural fire suppression and does not include the fire and emergency services the Federal Aviation Administration requires of the airport.
Nevertheless, Rep. Womack said Wednesday the decision by Rice is the result of more than a year of lobbying various military officials and will benefit the base and airport.
“It’s a big deal for Fort Smith. We’ve been slogging through this discussion now for well over a year, and we’ve been able to get the Guard Bureau to reach a decision that is very favorable,” Womack told Talk Business & Politics.
The fire services provided by the 188th may soon have a secure budget, with Rice saying his “long-term plan is to submit an FY2019 Program Objective Memorandum (POM) initiative for a full-time fire department.” Womack said Rice, who was appointed in May 2016 to his position over the Air Guard, was willing to take the time to understand the issue in Fort Smith.
“He did this thing by the book. He assumes the job, and with all of the other priorities going on in the Air Guard, he made this a priority and did it right,” Womack said.
Womack also thanked Gen. Joseph Lengyl, chief of the National Guard Bureau and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and 188th Wing Commander Col. Bobbi Doorenbos. Womack said Doorenbos is “one of the most competent and capable senior leaders in the Air Force.” Womack also praised Arkansas’ Congressional delegation, “particularly (U.S. Sen.) John Boozman, for being supportive every time we needed them on this.”
As to the airport’s needs, Womack said it is “very doable” the city and 188th can work out a deal that reduces the airport’s costs. He said it is now up to the city and airport to take the initiative and work with the 188th “for other things not necessarily related to the federal mission.” Doorenbos said it is too early in the process to know how the 188th’s fire unit can be used, but said she does want to have “a conversation with the airport about how we can partner in the future.”
Parker, who is retiring at the end of March, said the airport will continue to fund its fire and emergency services, but he is hopeful a deal could be made to reduce the hit to the budget.
“I don’t think it’s a hill too high to climb,” Parker said of working with the 188th on the issue.
Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Allen said news of Rice’s decision was a huge relief.
“That airport is so critical to economic development. If it was ever to be placed in jeopardy, our ability to do what we do here at the chamber would be greatly reduced,” Allen said. “I think sometimes Fort Smith may take the airport for granted, but it’s a big part of what we do.”
He also said Womack and Doorenbos should be thanked for staying on top of the effort.
“Congressman Womack really took the lead on this, and he and Col. Doorenbos worked behind the scenes to find a solution, so we’re really grateful to them for that,” Allen said.