Amid efforts to explore privatizing aircraft rescue firefighting services at John Wayne Airport, county leaders and public firefighters have struck a deal to have the Orange County Fire Authority continue to provide service over the next five years.

The new agreement, approved Tuesday by the Orange County Board of Supervisors, calls for lowering the number of on-duty firefighters from seven to six, a move that Supervisor Janet Nguyen says will save the county about $3.3 million over the five-year contract.

“It’s a great compromise,” said Nguyen. “Not only are we maintaining our personnel in terms of firefighters to protect the public, but we’re also saving the county money.”

Union leader Joe Kerr echoed her sentiment.

“Those firefighters will continue to uphold the best in American fire service,” said Kerr, president emeritus of the OC Professional Firefighters Association.

The county will now spend an average of $4.7 million per year on the firefighting team at John Wayne, according to figures in the contract.

The compromise comes amid county efforts to decide whether to privatize the aircraft rescue team, which serves as first responders for plane crashes, fires and medical emergencies in the secure side of the airport.

Supervisors have directed airport staff to start the bidding process, under which the board would make a decision on whether to outsource as early as next July.

Nguyen questioned why the county would go through that effort now if the contract doesn’t come up for another five years.

“If you’re going to have a five-year contract, when are you starting the RFQ [request for qualification] process? And why would we be doing that?” she asked.

Supervisor John Moorlach, whose district includes the airport, replied that the county “would do that just for educational purposes.”

Kerr says the union is hopeful that given the reduction, supervisors won’t see a need to put the contract out for bid.

Under the new agreement, the county would reduce one of three fire apparatus engineers per shift and finance a $15,000 fund for equipment maintenance. Each year, the county would replenish the fund to $15,000.

Kerr says the crew responds to medical calls about 2.5 times per day and clears the runway about 36 times each year when smaller planes have minor crashes. Firefighters also stand by for minor fires in jet engines during maintenance and small jet fuel leaks during fuel deliveries.

The crew operates two emergency fire trucks, an airport tug for pulling planes, a firefighting foam trailer and a crane that tows aircraft. The team is required to respond rapidly — within two minutes — to emergencies anywhere on the runway, Kerr said.

Airport officials estimated it would take nine months to obtain alternative proposals to Fire Authority service. A transition to an alternate vendor would take about four more months.

Statements of qualifications would be due by Dec. 4., with airport staff returning to the Board of Supervisors by February with a list of qualified companies. If the board then chose to proceed, it is expected that companies’ proposals would be due by April with a decision on outsourcing in July.


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