As county leaders begin the process of deciding whether to privatize aircraft rescue firefighting services at John Wayne Airport, they will likely decide Tuesday to temporarily keep the Orange County Fire Authority as the provider.

Under the current proposal, county supervisors would extend the existing agreement with the Fire Authority by one year and solicit bids from private companies interested in taking over the service. Supervisors would decide in July whether to outsource.

The one-year extension, which would cost $5 million, would also reduce the number of on-duty firefighters from seven to six, which airport officials said is well within federal requirements.

Union leaders said they’re hopeful that given the reduction, supervisors won’t put the contract out for bid.

“When there’s fiscal challenges, firefighters have stepped up, and they’re willing to do it again,” said Joe Kerr, president emeritus of the OC Professional Firefighters Association. “We’re hoping if we can reach this compromise … that it will not go to bid.”

The aircraft rescue firefighting team, also known as a crash crew, serve as first responders for fire and medical emergencies in the secure side of the airport, which includes the tarmac, gates and much of the terminals.

Kerr said the crew responds to medical calls about 2.5 times per day and clears the runway about three dozen 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.

Kerr said the crew is required to respond rapidly — within 118 seconds — to an emergency anywhere on the runway.

“They’ve been able to keep most incidents small, so you don’t really have reports of major incidents,” he said.

Airport officials estimated it would take nine months to obtain alternative proposals to the 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, the staff assumes that companies’ proposals would be due by April with a decision on outsourcing in July.


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