Des Moines Airport Votes To Privatize Firefighters Drawing Union Backlash

DES MOINES, IA &#8211 Des Moines airport officials voted today to privatize the airport’s fire department, a move that drew protests from union leaders and a city councilman.

The labor dispute erupted last month when the airport announced plans to hire Pro-Tec Fire Services, a Wisconsin firefighting company that serves nearly 20 other airports nationwide. Pro-Tec will replace the Iowa Air National Guard’s fire department, which will disband later this year when the guard stops flying jets from Des Moines.

Union members called on the airport to create its own fire department and hire air guard firefighters, while airport officials opted for a private contractor, saying they are not in the business of managing a fire department.

Staffing levels were a primary complaint from union members. Pro-Tec would employ about 10 firefighters and have three on-duty at all times, while the guard fire department employed about 30 with five to seven on-duty.

“The fact is aircraft do come down… and we need to be staffed for when that does happen and three personnel is just not enough,” said Gary Sanders, a national guard firefighter.

Airport executive director Don Smithey, however, said the staffing levels exceed federal regulations requiring two-on duty firefighters. Fewer firefighters are required because the airport will no longer have military flights, he said.

Dan Homan, president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61, which represents the guard firefighters, said Pro-Tec will be required to douse flames, not provide medical assistance.

“They will spray chemical on the crash and they will drive around people laying on the ground,” he said.

Carl W. Thiem, general manager with Pro-Tec said that was not true.

“If we can rescue someone, we will,” he said. ”It’s the flight crew’s primary role to get passengers off the plane. It’s our job to clear a path through the fuel so they can get those passengers out.”

The airport authority board voted unanimously for the two-year contract with Pro-Tec, which starts at about $960,000 a year.

The board amended the contract to require one paramedic on-duty, rather than EMTs, which have a lower level of medical training. Des Moines Fire Chief John Tekippe had raised concerns that without a paramedic on duty, city firefighters could be called to the airport more often.

The airport’s firefighters cover only the runway and tarmac, while city firefighters serve the terminal. The guard’s fire department will leave in September when the Pentagon moves Iowa’s F-16 fighter jets elsewhere.

Union members also raised concerns about wages, claiming other Pro-Tec firefighters at other airports make less than $10 an hour.

“We don’t need any more low-wage jobs in our community,” said Mark Cooper. “We are already overburdened with those types of jobs.”

Thiem said his Pro-Tec’s firefighters generally make a starting salary of $40,000 to $45,000 a year.

City councilman Skip Moore asked the airport board to delay the decision. Airport officials said they need to approve a contract so Pro-Tec is ready when the guard fire department leaves.

“If we are not up and ready we effectively close the airport,” said airport board member Mark Feldmann.

From The Des Moines Register

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