Des Moines Int’l & Fort Smith Regional Privatize Aircraft Rescue & Firefighting Services

Thomas J. Smith
Published in: 

As the Pentagon converts two Midwestern Air National Guard units from flight training to drone operation regiments, the airports that hosted the units lost their aircraft rescue and firefighting services (ARFF) in the process. Acting separately, both airports turned to the private sector to fill that gap.


Location: Des Moines (IA) Int’l Airport

AARF Provider: Pro-Tec Fire Services

Terms: 2-year contract with multiple extensions

Year 1 Fee: $925,000

Staffing: 1 chief; 9 firefighters

Recently Acquired Equipment: New 3,000-gallon Oshkosh Striker; refurbished 1,500-gallon Striker

Fort Smith (AR) Regional Airport

AARF Provider: Pro-Tec Fire Services

Terms: 2-year contract with multiple extensions

Year 1 Fee: $250,000

Staffing: 1 chief, 4 firefighters

Anticipated Purchases: New truck, 2015; new fire station, 2017.

On Oct. 1, Iowa’s Des Moines International Airport (DSM) and Fort Smith Regional Airport (FSM) in Arkansas turned over their ARFF operations to Pro-Tec Fire Services, the largest private provider of ARFF services in the industry.

While both DSM and FSM received advance notice that their ARFF services would be leaving with their respective guard units, the airport’s individual situations differed — and so did their reactions to the news.

Decisions in Des Moines

The Iowa Air National Guard first notified DSM officials in June 2012 that it was considering pulling its F-16 training flights from the airfield. And if the planes went, so would the airport’s state-funded ARFF team. One year later, the final word came that the guard would discontinue its flights at DSM on March 31, 2014, and end its long-standing ARFF arrangement. 

Since 1999, the airport had supplied the fire station and one fire truck, and the guard had provided all personnel and remaining firefighting vehicles.

“We were given nine months notice,” recalls Kevin Foley, executive director of the Des Moines Airport Authority. “That is when we started looking and planning for our own ARFF.”

With their previous ARFF agreement officially terminated, airport personnel worked until December trying to establish a service agreement that would leave some guard firefighters in place after the unit left the airfield. Previously, the guard had seven to 10 firefighters on duty each shift, even though FAA rules required only two firefighters for DSM’s civilian traffic, Foley notes.

Ultimately, the guard “could not make it work” because of national implications on relationships between other guard units and their host airports, Foley reports.

The airport authority subsequently considered three alternatives: forming its own ARFF unit, contracting with the city of Des Moines Fire Department or outsourcing the unit to a private firm. Just days after the airport issued a request for proposals (RFP) for each option, the guard agreed to continue providing ARFF coverage until Sept. 30. 

Given its looming deadline, DSM officials didn’t feel there was enough time to purchase another fire truck and recruit and train firefighters in order to establish its own department. Retraining some of the guard’s firefighters would have saved time, but hiring them would have been costly, Foley explains, because the airport would have had to pay into Iowa’s public employees retirement program — a much more expensive option than most 401(k) retirement plans.

Contracting with the city proved similarly unviable. Although the city fire department provided ambulance and fire coverage for the airport’s terminal and other structures, it was not interested in providing ARFF service under the staffing levels outlined in the airport’s RFP.

Hiring a private provider was DSM’s only realistic option; and Pro-Tec was the only firm that submitted a valid and timely response to its RFP, reports Foley. After the deadline, a group of guard firefighters submitted their own plan to provide ARFF services that was more expensive than Pro-Tec’s proposal. 

The two-year contract the airport ultimately signed with Pro-Tec includes a fixed fee of $925,000 for the first year, and three options for one-year extensions. Under the contract, the private firm must provide a department of 10 — one full-time fire chief working traditional weekday hours and nine firefighters who work rotating shifts of 24 hours on and 48 hours off to ensure three on duty each shift.

The drop in staffing levels from between seven and 10 firefighters per shift to three initially elicited public opposition. But airport authority officials put most concerns to rest by explaining that the guard previously maintained higher ARFF staffing levels for the F-16 activities it supported. Officials further explained that the airport would still be staffed beyond FAA requirements with three firefighters per shift. The Pro-Tec contract was subsequently approved in February, and opposition has since “fallen by the wayside,” Foley reports.

Some of the initial pushback stemmed from concerns about timely response to medical emergencies at the terminal. At the city’s request, the airport increased its contract requirements from EMT (emergency medical technician) level to paramedic level.

The higher certification provides more comprehensive first-response capabilities, explains Alan H. Graff, DSM’s chief of operations. A Pro-Tec paramedic will tend to medical emergencies inside the terminal until a city ambulance team arrives.

Carl Thiem, Pro-Tec’s general manager, notes that the contractual obligation to provide one paramedic per shift makes DSM unique. Other airports only require FAA-defined advanced first-aid skills, explains Thiem.

Pro-Tec hired firefighters for DSM in June and July, drawing mostly from local and regional volunteer departments. Some veterans it hired came with military ARFF backgrounds.

“We can pay market wages, but our benefits program cannot compare to what municipalities or the state offer their firefighters,” Thiem notes. “We need to be able to attract and retain people. You don’t do that by paying people poorly.”

After training in August, the new unit completed 40 hours of FAA-required ARFF training and a live burn.

Per FAA regulations, DSM is required to have two trucks with a total capacity of 3,000 gallons on hand. To supplement its 1,500-gallon 2006 Oshkosh Striker the guard previously operated, DSM used revenue from passenger facility charges to purchase a new 3,000-gallon Oshkosh Striker at a cost of more than $1 million. In addition, officials spent about $250,000 of airport funds to purchase a refurbished 1,500-gallon Striker for backup.

By mid-November, the new Pro-Tec team had responded to 11 incidents at DSM since it assumed ARFF duties on Oct. 1.

“The transition has gone well,” Foley reports. “They are professionals, and the company knows what they are doing. They are also very understanding that this is a service agreement and they are here to provide a service. They have a very strong customer service orientation.”

In 2013, DSM logged roughly 85,000 operations — about 2,500 of which were military — and serviced 2.2 million commercial passengers. Currently, the airport is served by four major carriers — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines — and their regional code share partners. It also offers service from two low-cost carriers: Frontier Airlines and Allegiant Air. Annual cargo operations of 63,700 metric tons include a steady stream of Boeing 757 and 767 flights for UPS.

Faster Changes in Fort Smith

FSM faced an entirely different set of challenges when the Arkansas Air National Guard stopped using its airfield to train A-10 Warthog pilots. At FSM, the guard not only provided firefighters, it also owned the fire station and all the firefighting equipment. 

Officials at the Fort Smith airport also had considerably less time than their counterparts in Des Moines to develop an alternate plan. The airport and community were aware for about a year that the Pentagon was considering changing its local guard unit’s mission from flying A-10s to operating remote drones. But official word did not come until June that Sept. 30, 2014, would be the last day the guard would provide ARFF services.

Given the short lead-time, it would have been impossible for FSM to purchase its own vehicles and establish a separate fire station at the airfield, notes Airport Director John Parker. So the airport took a two-track approach, working on an agreement with the guard to use its ARFF station and vehicles while simultaneously seeking proposals from private vendors that could provide vehicles and personnel. Three firms submitted bids, and Pro-Tec’s proposal was deemed the best qualified, Parker reports.

FSM awarded Pro-Tec a two-year contract with three single-year renewals. The first year’s fee is $250,000.

Based on the nature and volume of its traffic, FSM is required to have one firefighter on duty with a 1,500-gallon ARFF truck. In 2013, the airport served 90,000 passengers — most via American Airlines’ four daily flights to Dallas/Fort Worth International and Delta Air Lines’ three daily flights to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International. Similar to the unit in Des Moines, the guard at FSM utilized eight to 10 firefighters per shift because of the increased requirements associated with its military aircraft.

In August, FSM learned that the guard would transfer its two fire trucks to the state; and the state, in turn, would transfer the vehicles to the airport. In addition, the guard is allowing the airport to use its fire station until 2017.

Because one of the guard’s trucks was a 2001 vintage, the FAA authorized FSM to use Airport Improvement Program funds to purchase a new truck in fiscal 2015. The airport also applied for a 2017 grant to build a new fire station, adds Parker.

Per its contract, Pro-Tec hired four firefighters and will provide ARFF service 18 hours per day, with one firefighter per shift. Fillings its ranks with existing guard firefighters eliminated the need for additional certifications, because the firefighters had already been trained and would be operating the same equipment from the same fire station. However, FSM did ask the FAA to perform an informal inspection prior to Oct. 1, which went well, Parker reports. FAA personnel will also return to review operations prior to FSM’s annual certification inspection.

Between its new ARFF costs and the revenue lost from fees the guard paid for use of the airfield, Parker estimates that the guard’s departure will cost FSM $450,000 per year — enough to put the airport in the red. To help plug that gap, the FAA is requiring the guard to pay market rate rent for the 142 acres it will continue to use. It also set an October 2016 deadline for the guard and airport to reach an agreement about future arrangements. 

Why Privatize ARFF?

While most airports maintain their own aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) services or rely on local departments for FAA-required coverage, some hire private firms to provide and manage ARFF services for them.

With 20 U.S. and Canadian airport clients, Pro-Tec Fire Services is the largest private provider of ARFF services in the industry. According to Carl Thiem, Pro-Tec’s operations chief, three major reasons inspire airports to contract out its ARFF services:

Control — Some airport directors don’t want to cede the management of a critical airport resource to a fire chief downtown. When city and county departments treat airport ARFF units like any other station in their system, they often experience high turnover, Thiem notes.

Costs — Slow traffic growth and rising costs put many airports under serious financial pressure. “We can provide a rather significant costs savings,” Thiem says.

Flexibility — Private contractors can also provide services other than ARFF coverage.  Pro-Tec often offers fire marshal expertise, fuel farm inspections and CPR training for airport tenants at no extra charge, notes Thiem “The only two caveats are to be safe and not degrade our ability to maintain the FAA index,” he notes.

At the Ardmore Industrial Airpark in Ardmore, OK, Pro-Tec also responds to building, wild-land and vehicular fires throughout the county. At Mid-America Airport near Belleville, IL, operations and security are the company’s primary missions; ARFF services are secondary.

Fully three-fourths of Pro-Tec’s clients are Part 139 airports, and all choose to exceed minimum FAA staffing levels — some by a significant margin, Thiem reports. “It depends on what the airport can afford and what they feel is safe. It is always the airport that decides the minimum staffing, and it is always set by contract.”

Twice in seven years, client airports have reduced staffing levels — both times dropping the contractual level by one, but still staying above FAA minimums, he notes.

In addition to Des Moines International (DSM) and Fort Smith Regional (FSM), three other airports began contracting with Pro-Tec last year: Chicago Rockford International Airport, La Crosse (WI) Regional Airport and Wabush Airport in Newfoundland, Canada.

Pro-Tec began providing ARFF services in 1974 for its hometown airport, Austin Straubel International, in Green Bay, WI. Other long-time clients include Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport, Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport and Burbank Bob Hope Airport. Its largest client is Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City.

Two other companies also offer private ARFF services. Rural/Metro, based in Arizona, primarily provides residential fire and ambulance services, but it also has contracts with six airports. Port Columbus International Airport is its largest client. G4S Government Solutions provides firefighting services for the military, NASA and several commercial airports.  


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