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FAA Looking Into St. Croix Airport Firefighter Issue

March 25, 2009 — Evidence continues to mount that early-morning flights left Henry E. Rohlsen Airport March 11 with only one firefighter on duty, a violation of FAA regulations, and the FAA has confirmed it is investigating the matter.
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.")
Airport fire station crew chief Larry Clemons says passenger planes took off with too few fire personnel on duty. Port Authority Executive Director Kenn Hobson said March 17 that Clemons' allegations were 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."
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.
"I understand there was a blue flu," he said. (See "Airport Chief: Only One Firefighter Working as Planes Left St. Croix.")
Clemons, one of the three fire-service professionals who Hobson says were on duty, says from 5 a.m. until after 7 a.m. he was the only one on duty.
"There was nobody here but myself, and the log book will show it," he said.
On March 18, the Port Authority refused a request by the Source to see the sign-in log to verify or disprove the allegations. Hobson first directed the request to Assistant Director David Mapp, who has not returned calls. 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."
The FAA says they have no such regulation.
"There is no requirement to maintain a sign-in sheet," said Kathleen Bergen, the FAA's Southern Region public information officer, on Tuesday. "Because we don't require the documents, we can't prohibit them being released."
Clemons said he was not authorized to give access to the sign-in sheet, but could confirm details of it. The Source subsequently acquired a photocopy of it from another source. It says one firefighter called in sick the night before, then Clemons signed in at 5 a.m. Subsequently eight firefighters called in sick, one after another.
Clemons said Felix came in at his normal time shortly after 7 a.m. but, as the airport fire chief, Felix does not sign in and is not on the sheet at all. The rest of the day there were two firefighters on duty.
FAA regulations on fire equipment and staffing are specific to each airport, based on the size of aircraft coming in and out. Rohlsen Airport requires two fire trucks and minimum staffing of one person for each vehicle when passenger planes are taking off and landing, Bergen said.
The FAA is aware of allegations of insufficient fire staffing at Rohlsen and is investigating, she said.
"Our preliminary information is they met the requirements of the regulations at all times," she said. "Check back in a week or so and we may have more information, though I can't say it will be resolved by then."
The FAA defines a passenger flight as any regularly scheduled flight with more than nine passengers or an unscheduled flight with more than 31 passengers, she said.
According to Clemons, a regular 6:45 a.m. American Eagle flight departed St. Croix; a 66-passenger ATI Super 72 turboprop plane.
"Everybody on that plane has a right to be upset," Clemons said.
FlightStats, an independent company that tracks the timeliness and other factors of U.S. passenger flights using FAA data, confirms American Eagle Flight 5055 departed St. Croix at 6:45 a.m. March 11, during the time Clemons said he was the sole firefighter at the airport. To see the information on Flight 5055, click here.
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