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Fargo airport creating its own fire force with loss of Air Guard flying mission

Members of the 148th Fighter wing based out of Duluth, Minn., train under the supervision of David Belcher, left, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, at the N.D. Air National Guard facility in north Fargo. David Samson / The Forum 2 / 2

FARGO – For years, Hector International Airport has been protected by firefighting crews from the North Dakota Air National Guard base.

That arrangement ends on Oct. 1.

The end of the flying mission for the 119th Wing spelled the end of the full-time mission for the 119th Civil Engineer Squadron’s fire department.

That unit will now focus on training other Guard firefighters, while the Fargo Airport Authority runs its own firefighting force.

Ten firefighters have been hired from among the state and Guard employees who make up the 119th’s fire department. Plus, two new “crash” trucks – vehicles customized for fighting airplane fires – have been ordered, said Airport Authority Executive Director Shawn Dobberstein.

“We don’t anticipate any problems. We have a really good crew,” Dobberstein said.

Still, the Airport Authority fire crew will be a much smaller unit.

The 119th now has 25 members; it is authorized 28. That gives the five people on a shift the flexibility to have a man leave a truck to help people get away from a crashed airplane, or to hook up a hose separate from the main water, foam and dry chemicals nozzle on the trucks.

The new Airport Authority fire department will have three people on a shift.

Federal Aviation Administration rules for an airport the size of Hector require at least two firefighters per shift, said Steve Bertsch, the current assistant fire chief. He stays in the post in the new department.

“It’ll be tough. …. It’s going to be a change of mindset,” Bertsch said.

The new reality will require rewriting operating procedures and working closely with the Fargo Fire Department, Bertsch said.

A plus is that the Airport Authority was “really good” about buying modern trucks and firefighting equipment, he said.

The new fire department will have Oshkosh Striker crash trucks, one with a 1,500-gallon capacity and the other for 3,000 gallons.

The smaller truck will cost $805,913, while the larger truck will cost $1,054,271, Dobberstein said. Those costs, plus the bill for firefighting gear, will be paid for out of authority reserve funds.

About half of the cost is expected to be recouped by seeking a state grant, with the remaining balance reimbursed from the $4.50 passenger facility charge on each ticket. The airlines get 11 cents, while the rest goes to the authority for repairs and improvements at the airport, Dobberstein said.

An agreement is being hammered out to have the trucks and firefighters stationed at the Guard fire department building, Dobberstein said.

Fargo Fire Chief Steve Dirksen said his department remains the first-response agency for fires and other emergencies at all buildings, civilian and military, at Hector.

“Their staffing is not enough to safely enter a structure,” Dirksen said. “We typically don’t go in with three guys, at least not without a backup team.”

City of Fargo crews also will be the backup for the airport’s fire department for airfield incidents, he said.

The Airport Authority has paid salaries and benefits for eight of the firefighters on duty at the Guard base since 1972, Dobberstein said.

In 2013, that was about $576,000, he said. Hiring two more firefighters will add $80,000 to $90,000 a year to that total.

Those personnel costs are divvied up among the airlines at Hector – United, Delta, American, Allegiant and Frontier – based on the weight of passengers and cargo each lands at the airport monthly, Dobberstein said.

Other airports that have relied on National Guard units for fire and rescue services are going through similar transitions after the Guard units lost their flying missions or were disbanded.

Des Moines, Iowa, airport officials opted to hire a private firm to provide fire protection.

In Fort Smith, Ark., officials have an agreement that allows them to use some Guard firefighting vehicles, but are debating manpower options for fire and rescue services.

Cities in the region that still rely on National Guard units for fire and rescue services at their airports are Duluth, Minn., Great Falls, Mont, Sioux Falls, S.D., and Sioux City, Iowa.

Chief Master Sgt. Mark Solem, fire chief for the 119th Wing, will be the only full-time firefighter with the Guard after the transition.

Those firefighters who did not get hired by the Airport Authority are now looking for jobs, Solem said.

Of the three Air Guard crash trucks now at Hector, one will be sent to another base. The remaining two crash trucks, plus a pumper, a rescue truck, a tanker and a command pickup, will be used for training, Solem said.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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