Orange County Supervisors, facing heated opposition from the county firefighters union, backed away from plans to cut firefighting positions at John Wayne Airport.
Instead, they approved a one-year contract extension with the Orange County Fire Authority at current staffing levels and authorized a study on outsourcing fire services.
For the past 50 years, the county's fire agency — known as a fire authority since 1995 — has provided emergency response for both airlines and passengers at the airport.
In this year's contract negotiations, officials proposed reducing the authority's airport response team from seven to five positions. Fire Chief Keith Richter balked at a two-position reduction but agreed to cut one position, which would have saved an estimated $600,000.
Yet the plan prompted intense opposition from the firefighters' union, which accused Richter and Airport Director Alan Murphy of putting firefighters and the public at risk.
"They've slowly dismantled fire safety at the airport while they've expanded facilities," said Joe Kerr, president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association.
The plan also drew a harsh response from Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang, who warned supervisors at the meeting that such a plan would adversely affect the nearby Irvine fire station. Kang also reminded supervisors that Irvine is the largest contributor of resources to the OCFA.
While Murphy said the airport operates at twice the staffing levels suggested by the Federal Aviation Administration, Kerr said the staffing at the airport is "the bare minimum."
Tony Bedolla, the political director of OC Firefighters, rebuked Richter, saying the chief was providing political cover to the supervisors and airport officials while not truly understanding the threat.
"He's a bureaucrat and hasn't put on turnouts in 20 years," Bedolla said. "He's anointed [by supervisors] as the expert, and he's the one quoted, not them, if it all goes bad."
Richter took issue with Bedolla's characterization, saying he's been at more training operations than Kerr. He also insisted that reducing teams by one firefighter would not jeopardize public safety.
But the supervisors were not ready to cut firefighters, especially after $543 million has been spent to expand passenger terminals at the airport.
"I fear if we go from seven to six firefighters and then something happens, I don't want to be the person that cast that vote," said Supervisor Janet Nguyen. "I just don't want to be the person that says 'oops' if something happens."
That prompted Supervisor John Moorlach — who has been perhaps the board's most vocal member when it comes to reducing personnel costs — to suggest a status quo contract for this year while the airport studies outsourcing or developing its own firefighting response capability.
That drew unanimous support from his colleagues.
Richter said he is supportive of the outsourcing studies, saying "it's a good thing for local governments to always look at their options." Richter said he believes his agency would compete effectively in any comparison.
"We have a depth of resources a private company wouldn't," he said. "And even if we weren't the lowest bidder, we'd be the best value."