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HomeNewsArchivesAirport Chief: Only One Firefighter Working as Planes Left St. Croix

Airport Chief: Only One Firefighter Working as Planes Left St. Croix

March 18, 2009 — Early-morning flights left Henry E. Rohlsen Airport last Wednesday with only one firefighter on duty, an airport fire chief alleges, but V.I. Port Authority management disputes the allegation.
Between 35 and 50 employees of the V.I. Port Authority's Aviation Bargaining Unit called in sick that day, leaving several departments at both airports undermanned. (See "Dozens of Port Authority Employees Call In Sick.")
Port Authority Executive Director Kenn Hobson said Tuesday the allegations are untrue.
"We had adequate coverage at both airports," Hobson said. "On any shift, there are supposed to be at least five on duty, with a minimum of three. We had the chief, a crew chief and one other person."
Told there was a specific allegation that only one person was present that morning, Hobson was firm, saying, "That's incorrect."
"Chief (Epifanio) Felix was there, with Crew Chief (Larry) Clemens and one other person was there, making three," Hobson said. "That's the information I have from (Assistant Director) David Mapp and Chief Felix."
Hobson said airport fire-service employees, like police, teachers and other Class III employees, are not allowed to strike. But many employees did call in sick last Wednesday.
"I understand there was a blue flu," he said.
While insisting there was sufficient fire-response personnel, he conceded there were shortages elsewhere.
"We didn't have adequate maintenance staff that day," he said. "But fortunately, we didn't get any situation that warranted a full contingent."
Clemens, one of the three fire-service professionals who Hobson says were on duty, says there was not enough fire-response staff.
"From 5 a.m. until after 7 a.m. I was the only one on duty," Clemens said. "There was nobody here but myself, and the log book will show it."
From 5 a.m. on, fire-service personnel called in sick, one after another, with no one joining Clemens until Felix came in at his normal 7 a.m. time. During that period, several flights departed St. Croix, including the daily flight taking the St. Croix Avis newspaper over to St. Thomas, Clemens said.
The handwritten daily log at the airport fire station lists who called in sick and who showed up and signed in, he said. Clemens said it would violate protocol to allow the Source to see the log without permission from above, but he said the log confirms his account.
"About 10 of 15 staff members called in sick that day," Clemens said.
After Felix arrived, one more firefighter arrived. Clemens left at 11 a.m., leaving only two firefighters until 5 p.m., Clemens said.
"That satisfies the FAA, but not individual airlines for rescue personnel on the ground," he said. "Someone needs to know, because everybody is at risk. Mapp rolled the dice. It is time for the buck to stop on this. He has to stop doing what he is doing."
On Wednesday morning the Port Authority refused a request to see the sign-in log to verify or disprove the allegations. Reached by phone, out of the territory, Hobson directed the request to Assistant Director David Mapp. A call to Mapp's office resulted in his secretary saying Mapp was in a meeting and unavailable. After confirming Mapp was on island and at work Wednesday, a message was left for Mapp asking to see the log and informing him the story would run if he did not respond. An hour later, a follow-up call found no one answering the phone in Mapp's office. When Hobson was called to follow up on the request, Hobson said he had spoken with Mapp over the intervening hour and Mapp had told him federal regulations make the employee sign-in logs secret.
"Mr. Mapp told me there were certain FAA restrictions regarding giving visual access to the log," Hobson said. "I asked him about showing the log and he said there are certain restrictions and it is not likely they would allow such."
When asked what FAA regulation made the log a secret, Hobson said he would have Mapp call and clarify. Mapp, who could not be reached at his office, had not called as of publication.
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