Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport Planning to Hand Over Fire Service

May 10, 2024
Sonoma County, CA Fire District and airport officials are exploring a phased plan that would place firefighters at existing stations.

May 10—Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport is planning to hand over its emergency fire and medical response to the Sonoma County Fire District, a move that reflects the rapid growth and ambitions of both public entities.

A full district takeover of fire services at the airport is still several years away and partly tied to the planned construction of a new, multimillion dollar airport fire station.

But airport and fire district officials say they're exploring a phased plan that calls for stationing firefighters at the existing firehouse starting next year.

"We're in collaboration with (the airport)," said Ron Busch, deputy chief of operations for the Sonoma County Fire District. "We're trying to work out ways to not only increase the level of services provided to the airport, but also to figure out how we fund the coverage at the airport."

Aircraft rescue and firefighting services are currently provided by a small team of airport operations specialists.

The specialists, who are specially trained and equipped to respond to airline disasters, are the first on scene before neighboring firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians arrive.

County officials say rapid airport growth, with more routes, increasing passenger traffic and more airline employees, warrants the need for a more robust emergency response that includes medical calls unrelated to aircraft emergencies.

"Our staff are not emergency medical technicians or paramedics," said Airport Manager Jon Stout. "With the passenger increases, we're getting more 'medicals,' so having somebody with an EMT certification also helps with the medical situations we're getting at the airport."

Stout said passenger volume this summer is expected to be 25% greater than it was last summer. Last year, the airport served 641,178 passengers, according to airport data.

Airport Manager Jon Stout during Avelo Airlines announcement of four new nonstop routes from Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport (STS) held at the airport's baggage claim area in Santa Rosa, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. ( Erik Castro / For The Press Democrat file)

Earlier this year, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents airport operations specialists, raised concerns about staffing levels at the airport and the ability of safety workers to quickly and effectively respond to aircraft emergencies.

The airport's operations specialists, who also have front-line responsibilities for airfield inspections some security duties, have raised concerns about deteriorating runway conditions, according to internal emails and other public records reviewed by The Press Democrat as part of a recently published four-month investigation.

Airport officials insist the airport currently meets all of the Federal Aviation Administration's safety standards and that the airport is safe. But Stout said the local airport is one of the few remaining airports in the state that still operates its own rescue and fire team.

Airport Operations Specialist Eric Haggard checks a Stryker fire/rescue vehicle on its twice daily inspection run to insure it's ready to go for operations in a moments notice at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa in 2023. ( Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat file)

The idea to contract at the airport with a local fire agency has been floated for decades, with one major sticking point being the cost.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic the fire district estimated covering aircraft fire and rescue duties would total $2 million a year, Stout said. At the time the airport's payroll budget was $2.2 million, which priced the airport out from moving forward, Stout said.

At that time, discussions between the fire district and the airport involved having the district take over only airport fire and rescue duties. Now officials are exploring a hybrid option, where the new fire station would serve both the airport and the surrounding industrial and residential area.

Sharing the station could allow the two agencies to share staff and reduce some costs, Stout said.

Paying for the fire station

Stout said rough estimates for a new fire house range from $14 million to $17 million, depending on the design.

Through its Airport Improvement Program, the FAA provides significant financial assistance to airports to purchase heavy rescue firefighting equipment, including fire stations.

Stout said the FAA could reimburse roughly 90% of such costs. But he added that only the cost of the portion of the new fire station dedicated to airport operations would be reimbursable.

Last October, county supervisors approved spending $500,165 for design and engineering services for the preliminary design of a new aircraft and firefighting rescue station. The airport's contract engineering consultant Mead & Hunt is preparing those designs.

Bush, of the Sonoma County Fire District, said he and airport officials have not discussed "total numbers" for the cost of operating and maintaining a fire station at the airport.

"We're collaborating with the County of Sonoma Public Infrastructure (the airport's parent agency) and we haven't gone down that route yet," he said.

Back and forth between county, fire district

Documents obtained through public records request provide some insight on current negotiations between the airport and the fire district.

According to one design concept airport prepared by Mead & Hunt calls for a 12,260 square foot fire station that includes 4,825 square feet of administrative space and 5,100 square feet of space for three vehicle bay and maintenance bay garage.

The station would have 12 staff with a minimum of 3 "responders" per shift for 25-hour operation.

Emails between Stout and Busch, sent in recent months and obtained through the public records request, show the two gathering information about comparable agreements between local fire agencies and local airports.

Last August, Busch emailed Stout a link to a KION-TV news story about a deal between the City of Monterey and Monterey Fire to provide service at the local airport for a little over $3 million annually.

"FYI," Busch wrote in the body of the email.

In April, Stout reached out to Courtney Johnson, director at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, with questions about their airport rescue and firefighting operations, which are provided by Cal Fire.

Courtney, in an April 22, 2024 email, informed Stout that their contract with Cal Fire is for $1,014,735 for the 2024-25 fiscal year. Stout responded to Johnson that same day.

"As we start talking to our local fire district about contracting with them, I would like to talk to you about your arrangement with CalFire," he said. "Our local (fire district) is quoting much higher than the rates you have," he wrote,

He signed off on that email, writing "Fun Times" and an included a smiley face emoji.

Since its creation in 2019, through the consolidation of several fire agencies, Sonoma County Fire District has grown dramatically. Its firefighting territory currently includes Windsor, Rincon Valley, Bennett Valley, Bodega Bay, Guerneville and Forestville.

In January, the district also took over the county's lucrative contract for exclusive ambulance service in central Sonoma County, worth about $30 million a year in revenue, according to the district's winning bid proposal.

Stout, in an email this week, said the local fire district's $2 million price tag was an "old verbal rough quote" "without any detailed discussion on exact coverage levels."

He said airport has "not had any discussions at this time" with Cal Fire, which staffs an aerial firefighting base at the airport.

Busch said in an email that costs are dependent on the level of service and staffing ultimately provided by the district. "We are currently in the early stages of determining staffing levels," he wrote.

Limiting costs but seeking bolstered service

Stout acknowledged the "most economical" option would be to stick with the airport's current roster of airport operations specialists, who currently provide airport rescue and fire services.

But Stout said bringing in the fire district provide a higher level of service. That argument is gaining traction.

Public Infrastructure Director Johannes Hoevertsz, who oversees the airport, raised the subject during one of the county's budget workshops at the end of April, in response to questions from Supervisor Lynda Hopkins about building out emergency response capacity at the airport.

Hopkins said she's had conversations with local "fire chiefs, and everyone agrees that the ideal is to actually have an on-site station at the airport, and that that's kind of the gold standard."

"We don't have any interest in becoming a fire department within the airport," Hoevertsz said. "We are almost at a tipping point where it makes sense to start bringing outside resources to take over air and fire operations."

Hoevertsz told supervisors the airport has been in discussions with Sonoma County Fire District to have them eventually take over the new fire station once that's built.

"But we're not there yet funding wise," he said.

Arriving passengers from Santa Ana collect their bags in the baggage claim area of the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport terminal in Santa Rosa, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. ( Chad Surmick / The Press Democrat file)

Hoevertsz said the long term plan is to have Sonoma County Fire District take over aircraft rescue and fire services. He said a district fire station at the airport would also benefit the surrounding area.

Having an outside fire agency completely take over aircraft rescue and fire services would mean the county's airport operations specialists would no longer be exclusively providing those services.

In an interview, Travis Balzarini, a county employee and president of SEIU Local 1021, said it's unclear how the change would impact staffing levels. There are currently eight operations specialists.

Balzarini said the union is "glad" airport officials are "finally taking this issue seriously and looking for solutions." Whether it's current operation specialists or fire district staff providing the service is a secondary concern, he said.

"Our interest is for everybody to be safe." Balzarini said. "If that's the fire district and maybe they want to hire some of our airport operations specialists to do that job since they're already doing it — I think we're philosophically OK with that."



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