Florence airport safety hits turbulence
GAVIN JACKSON, Morning News | Posted: Saturday, November 16, 2013 11:45 pm
FLORENCE, S.C. — As passengers depart and land at Florence Regional Airport, there is a sense of security knowing that, should there be a crash or emergency situation on the airfield, critical response from the airport fire department would be adequate.
But several officials and an airport firefighter say that’s not the case. Should there be a wildlife strike, a tire blow out resulting in a crash or any other number of life-threatening situations, officials and a firefighter claim his department is not prepared to deal with it.
Inadequate maintenance on fire safety equipment, a lack of training to operate critical equipment like the crash truck and routine emergency exercises, inspection discrepancies, minimum continuing education and a work environment that prepared personnel not for success but failure, according to a firefighter who reached out to the Morning News in an anonymous letter.
“Someone needs to address these problems before they surface on the front page of the newspaper due to an airline crash at the airport where the fire resources were ineffective and caused a loss of life and/or property,” the letter states.
The letter’s dire warning has some validity, airport director Chuck Henderson said. During a simulated drill in the past in which firefighters got to the simulated crash scene within the required three minutes, their equipment failed.
Even with the airport fire department’s initial response, granted the air dryer brakes work (which aren’t working correctly) and there is sufficient water pressure from the E-One crash truck’s turret (which has a leak that causes water to come out from the bottom of it),
the airport’s emergency response plan (which the Federal Aviation Administration requires be looked at each year) is so out of date that Windy Hill, the closest fire department to the airport, would have to wait for a mutual aid call from the city, the airport’s primary responder.
Chief Sam Turbeville retired from the airport last month just as Henderson was getting up to speed since becoming airport director in mid-August. Henderson will begin interviewing new chief candidates shortly and said things are better now since that letter was sent.
“We’re servicing our fire trucks and will start aggressively training with them,” Henderson said. “We’re also enhancing the professional training of our firefighters. Finally, I’ve made our airfield a focus area with our consulting engineer and our maintenance staff. We’re going to be directing a lot of our resources to make sure we’re meeting FAA standards.”11/17/13 Florence airport safety hits turbulence
‘Not in compliance’
Those standards are laid out in detail in FAA Advisory Circular 150/5200-31C for emergency preparedness; it also provides common sense insight on preparation that has been neglected prior to Henderson’s arrival.
“Since emergencies are perceived as low-probability events and because preparedness requires cost in time and finances, the importance of such planning can often be overlooked,” the circular reads. “However, airports and communities that experience such disasters can pay a high price if they are not prepared. In addition to health and safety problems, social disruption, lawsuits, negative publicity, and psychological after-effects may result.”
Henderson, who has spent the majority of his career over operations at Columbia Metropolitan Airport, took the reins from Eddie
Gunn. Gunn, who had a background in government management, not aviation, stabilized the airport after the Transportation Security
Administration overcharging scandal that forced longtime director Hartsell Rogers out in May 2012.
Gunn dismissed the allegations of the letter when the Morning News first received it this summer.
Several letters of correction from the FAA for related issues are hard to dispute, but were clearly easy to ignore. Henderson provided the Morning News with letters of correction from 2011 and 2012 inspections, but said other records were “in a state of disrepair” and he could not find this year’s inspection report.
“The airport is not operating in compliance with its airport certification manual,” writes FAA safety inspector Patrick Rogers II in a May 11 letter. “Personnel responsible for airport safety self-inspections must review the airport certification manual.”
It’s understandable that they weren’t because Rogers II notes earlier in the letter that the manual wasn’t up to date and “airport
personnel responsible for airport safety self-inspection program are not being equipped with sufficient resources to comply with part 139.”
As a Class I airport operating certificate holder the FAA mandates that personnel conduct inspections of airport grounds and facilities
and maintain a 12-month log showing conditions found and corrective actions taken.
A year later there were still issues.
“The Airport Certification Manual is not current,” Rogers II noted in his 2012 letter of correction. “The new Airport Emergency Plan
was not revised and returned to the FAA following initial review in September 2011.”11/17/13 Florence airport safety hits turbulence – SCNow: Local News
In June, Florence County Fire and Rescue Services Coordinator Sam Brockington Jr. and Florence County Administrator K.G. “Rusty”
Smith ate lunch with then-director Gunn to discuss the airport’s jurisdiction, a matter that was on Brockington’s mind as he began
looking at potential countywide fire deficiencies two months into his newly created position. But deeper issues were discovered.
At the June Florence Regional Airport Authority meeting, Gunn told board members about the plan to rework the airport’s response plan minutes after members voted on their new budget — a budget that shrank airport rescue and firefighting supplies and building repairs by $900, but kept vehicle maintenance at the 2011 level of $1,000.
“I think in the past that training may have been a little lax and training drills hadn’t been as good and they’re going to try and revisit that,”
Gunn told the board. “We hope to have final product by end of summer.”
A fix is on the way A group was created to effectively revamp the airport’s emergency response plan with county emergency management director Dusty
Owens, assistant director and communications director Tommy Sullivan, Windy Hill Fire Department Chief John DeLung, EMS
director Ryon Watkins, Brockington, Turbeville and representatives from the Florence County Sheriff’s Office, State Highway Patrol and FAA involved.
Brockington said the plan is 90 percent complete, but that Turbeville’s abrupt retirement put the plan in a holding pattern until a new chief is named.
“We’re aggressively going after the safety of the airport,” Brockington said. “That all boils back down to any fire problem it takes manpower and equipment and if you lack either, you’re not going to get the job done and the current response plan doesn’t have adequate of either. The new response plan we will have is very adequate.”
DeLung, however, said the plan is still a work in progress, but one that will be stronger since it clarifies that Windy Hill will be theprimary responder to the airport, once the new document is submitted to the FAA for approval, and his career firefighters will beprepared as well.
“I’m hoping to move forward as soon as possible with a cohesive plan with the airport, but we plan on doing annual training and will be
training with the airport firefighters on a more regular basis, probably at least once a quarter so they’ll know our equipment and know my guys will know their equipment,” DeLung said. “But it’s all on hold until they hire a new chief.”
The county has already purchased an airplane to perform exercises with, and DeLung is sending eight of his firefighters for ARFF11/17/13 Florence airport safety hits turbulence – SCNow: Local News
training. Windy Hill has obtained $4,500 from county council for an aircraft training facility, and the airport’s two firefighters are
scheduled for additional training, Henderson said, as well as plans to bring two more firefighters on board.
Henderson didn’t give a timeframe for when additional firefighters would be added, but tersely said “Yesterday.”
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