Fire chief addresses concerns over Chandler Airport safety - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Fire chief addresses concerns over Chandler Airport safety

November 7th, 2021 SanTan Sun News

By Ken Sain
Staff Writer

Two more people are expressing concerns about the safety of Chandler Municipal Airport – an air traffic controller and a retired Chandler Fire Department captain.

Chandler Fire Chief Tom Dwiggins said his department takes the concerns they’ve raised seriously, but contends that those concerns either do not match the facts or have been addressed.

“The response time right now to get crash-fire-rescue to an incident at the airport is 12 minutes,” said Brad Finch, an air traffic controller at the airport.

Dwiggins disputes that. He says the response time to the airport is 5:57. The citywide response time is 5:59.

What’s more, he said, to maintain its top certification by the Center for Public Safety Excellence, Chandler Fire must have to list their response time with a 90 percent guarantee, meaning that 90 percent of the time they will make it in that time or less.

Dwiggins also said his department is one of the few to be certified by both the Center for Public Safety Excellence and get the top score by the Insurance Services Office.

The biggest concern expressed by the air traffic controller and the former fire captain involves the inability of Chandler Fire vehicles to gain quick access to the airport during an emergency.

“Our response times to house fires, apartments, is always great,” said Tim Klug, a retired captain in the Chandler Fire Department. “But on the airport environment, it’s a little different. … It takes considerably more time to get from the gate to wherever the incident may be. When gates don’t work, it makes it even more difficult.”

Klug and Finch said that in two recent incidents, airport gates failed to open for fire crews. Fire vehicles emit a signal that the gates are supposed to pick up and open automatically when the fire engines get close.

Dwiggins says it’s the same system the Fire Department uses at any gated community in the city. But firefighters have a backup in case it doesn’t work.

“Sometimes there are issues,” Dwiggins said. “Along with the emitter system, there is a key system, where we put the key in, we turn it, and it opens the gate.”

On July 10, a Beechcraft Bonanza airplane skidded off the runway at Chandler Airport and caught fire. Finch said that in that case, the gates failed to open and firefighters had to put the blaze out from outside the perimeter fence.

“There were four people involved, and they would have been burned to death” except two men came to the rescue,,” Finch said.

“With complete disregard for their own lives, they went down and pulled four people from that aircraft,” he said.

Assistant City Manager Steven Turner, who is the acting airport manager, said sometimes extreme heat can make the Opticom sensor that picks up emitter signals inoperable.

Turner said that prior to the July 10 event, crews checked the Opticom devices once a month. Since then, they check the devices weekly. In any case, Dwiggins said, the key system still worked so it did not delay a response.

Dwiggins said firefighters put out the blaze outside of the fence because that’s where the plane had stopepd skidding off the runway. He showed a photo of the plane to support his case.

Finch said a week before the Bonanza incident in early July, the gates failed again.

“A King Air aircraft that came in flying a patient, and there was an ambulance that was waiting for him, and the ambulance couldn’t get through the gates because the gates were broken,” Finch said. “The chains had fallen off the gates.”

He said that happens often.

Pilot Marvin Wessel has been advocating for better fire security at the airport for years. In May 2020, he was testing his aircraft when a fire started in the brakes.

Most of his plane was destroyed before firefighters were able to respond and put it out. He said it took firefighters 16 minutes to reach his plane after they were called by the tower.

Wessel has filed a claim against the city seeking compensation for the loss of his plane. City officials were unable to discuss his case because it is currently under litigation.

Klug was one of the firefighters who responded to that fire, and said they were unable to get into the airport because the gates were inoperable. He said he did not know Wessel before that day.

“The gate wouldn’t open,” Klug said. “I was first to the west side, and I couldn’t make access. There was another unit on the … south side, and that gate wouldn’t work either. By the time we actually got on the scene, to Marv Wessel’s airplane, there was really nothing we could do about it.”

Klug is also a pilot and flies out of Chandler Municipal Airport and said he thinks the best solution is to put a fire station at the airport that would also serve the surrounding neighborhoods.

Right now, there are four Chandler fire stations and one Gilbert station within four miles of the airport’s tower. The closest is little more than two miles away.

Wessel said Chandler is the only general aviation airport out of the top 40 its size that does not have a fire station within a mile of it.

Dwiggins said right now his biggest priority is in the northern half of the city. Fire Station 2 has only two units and it is handling about 4,000-to-4,500 calls per year. Most city fire stations get around 2,500 calls a year.

Dwiggins said he hopes to fix that problem with the bond issue currently before voters. If Question 2 passes on Nov. 2, he said, the city will have the money to expand the current station so it can house an additional two units to deal with the high number of incidents in that area.

By comparison, Dwiggins and Turner said there have been only 57 incidents at the airport in the past three years.

The other major issue both Klug and Finch pointed to as a concern is training.

Klug has raised another issue about fire safety and the airport.

“Training needs to be addressed, there has been no training on the airport environment,” said Klug, who retired from the Chandler Fire Department in May. “Right before I was hired, we did a training. All we did was take a lap around the outside of the airport to see where all the gates were. That was the extent of our airport training.”

Dwiggins said train firefighters from the four stations closest to the airport are trained and that he is considering a joint training exercise with firefighters from the Gilbert station that’s closest to the airport.

“We assigned every supervisor, and every person who is not a supervisor but can potentially move up into a supervisor position, to … review our standard operating guidelines on airport response. Then they had to go to physically go to the airport, but we had a battalion chief meet them and literally … look at all the gates, talk about the access points, talk about the runway, go over all the maps, and just talk about overall response.

“We sent every truck in the city through that training.”

City officials said the training took place in April and another round in July. Finch had cited a lack of training at the airport in his remarks Oct. 14 to City Council.

“I was really surprised to hear when he said that because it just wasn’t true,” Dwiggins said.

Krug said the chief suspended him for a day because he voiced concerns about airport safety and that the suspension was one of the factors that led him to retire.

“I went to a users group meeting, for the airport, as an airport user, while simultaneously being employed as a firefighter,” Klug said. “I gave an opinion that I was asked for. I gave it, and I got suspended for 24 hours.”

“They are going to say there was a gag order for me as a firefighter being on Marv Wessel’s incident because he put in a notice of claim. However, there wasn’t.

“There was an email that came out that requested a preservation of electronic documentation. But there was no email or anything that stated, ‘This pilot is suing the city or put in a notice of claim for the value of aircraft. Please do not discuss this with anybody.’

“I went to that meeting and I suggested a fire station, and I made it perfectly clear that I was not in any way representing the Fire Department. I was representing myself as a frequent user of that airport.”

Dwiggins said he could not discuss the situation because it is a personnel issue.

Krug stressed that the concerns he has raised about fire safety at the airport should not reflect poorly on the Chandler’s firefighters.

“I think the men and women of the Chandler Fire Department, the line people, the ones that actually respond to the emergencies, put their lives at risk, and wade through sickness and disease every day they come to work, they are the best,” Krug said. “I spent the past 23 years, and I think the men and women are … No. 1, without question.”

And Dwiggins said he is not ruling out pushing for a station at the airport.

“It’s absolutely worth thinking about,” he said. “We’re going to look at the probability of incidents, we’re going to look the impact that it’s going to have on the entire system, we’re going to look at the consequences it has to the citizens. It’s an equation that applies values and it tells us exactly where we need to be putting resources.”

 

There were four people involved, and they would have been burned to death except two men came to the rescue, with complete disregard for their own lives, they went down and pulled four people from that aircraft.

– Brad Finch

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