In the quest to reduce labor costs, Clark County officials are looking at whether they should replace McCarran International Airport's firefighting team.
The new crew would be trained to handle emergencies such as plane crashes, but it would be part of the airport instead of the county Fire Department. Aviation Director Randy Walker would oversee the operation.
The system would be similar to those at the Seattle-Tacoma and Portland international airports, where port authorities run their own fire teams independent of local governments.
Walker will discuss the proposal today with county commissioners, who aren't scheduled to take action.
The change mainly would benefit McCarran because the airport pays for the 35-member firefighting force from fees it charges airlines, not from money in the county's general operating fund.
The members would be diverted to a growing relief staff to help curb the Fire Department's overtime, although the savings would be diminished by the county having to pay the wages and benefits of some of the top-earning firefighters.
No estimates were available Monday on how much money the airport and county would save with such a personnel change.
The airport could snip costs by replacing the 35 firefighters, who generally are paid more because of seniority and specialized training yet deal with far fewer emergencies than regular firefighters, said County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who asked that the commission hear the proposal.
"There are very few calls they respond to," Sisolak said.
McCarran's firefighters are housed in one station. They are certified through the Federal Aviation Administration.
They must know how to use specialized machinery and foam suppressants to extinguish aircraft fires. They also must know how to maneuver safely in an airfield and must respond to on-site medical emergencies.
Sisolak acknowledged that the airport paid the $7.8 million cost of maintaining its fire team with airline fees and not with tax money from the county's general fund. But he argued that the county should be frugal in tough economic times, regardless of the funding source.
Lower-paid firefighters could be hired to replace the current airport firefighters, whose combined wages and benefits average $198,000 yearly compared with the $180,000 that other county firefighters average.
Although airport firefighters require special training, there's no reason the county can't bring in younger firefighters for less pay, Sisolak said, arguing that rookies have to deal with high-rise building fires, so they should be able to handle anything at McCarran.
Another option is for the airport to contract with a private company that provides firefighting services, Sisolak said. However, no U.S. airports close to the size of McCarran contract out for fire services.
If the current fire team is disbanded, the firefighters would join a relief staff that receives regular pay instead of time-and-a-half to fill in for absent co-workers. That would help chip away at the firefighters' overtime costs, which swelled to more than $15 million last year.
This month the county dismantled heavy rescue and hazardous-material teams and eliminated other jobs. That freed up several dozen firefighters for relief duty and saved an estimated $5.5 million in overtime.
The county also plans to turn over a Laughlin firetruck's emergency duties to nearby Bullhead City, Ariz., and transfer a dozen firefighters to the relief staff.
Creating a new fire agency at the airport, though, would require the hiring of new firefighters. It wasn't clear whether the extra cost would be paid by the Fire Department's reduced overtime.
Sisolak said he is confident many airport crew members will retire when they no longer pull in heavy overtime and extra pay for being called back to work shortly after their shifts end.
Last year, airport firefighters responded to 93 alerts, which included aircraft emergencies, and 2,862 medical calls. Sisolak sad that volume was sparse relative to the staffing.
Officials of the local firefighters union couldn't be reached for comment Monday.
A problem with the current system is that no one can fill in for a sick or vacationing airport firefighter except another airport firefighter because of the specialized training required, Sisolak said. That guarantees overtime to whoever substitutes for a colleague.
The union also won't allow a couple of dozen regular firefighters to receive airport training so they can act as backup, he said. The county must either limit the training to firefighters assigned to the airport or offer it to all 650-plus emergency responders in the department, which is too costly, he said.
"Some of this stuff doesn't make sense," Sisolak said.
Commissioner Rory Reid said training more firefighters who can fill in at the airport seems a better way to slash overtime costs than overhauling the teams.
"I'm as dedicated as anyone in reining in the Fire Department's costs," said Reid, who is running for governor. "I'm not sure that privatization saves us any money."
Commissioner Tom Collins said he thinks changing the current set-up is a bad idea.
Forming a new department will create a separate hierarchy with another set of managers and its own way of doing things, Collins said
"I believe it creates more problems than it solves," he said. "An airport director should be running the airport, and the Fire Department should be running the Fire Department."
Both the Portland and Seattle airports have had independent fire teams for decades and say the arrangement works well.
The Seattle airport has considered turning over some of its firefighting duties to the city or county but never followed through because it was unsure they could meet federal standards, said Perry Cooper, airport spokesman.
"It's much different than what city firefighters do," he said.
That airport doesn't have a relief staff, Cooper said. Instead, it budgets for overtime and accepts it as inevitable, he said, adding that it hasn't been deemed excessive.
Airport fire teams will lend a hand to neighboring fire departments, but the airport seldom brings in local agencies for help because they lack aviation training, Cooper said.
In contrast, the Portland airport has a mutual-aid agreement, offering help to urban areas and receiving backup from city firefighters and the Air National Guard. The agencies offer complementary skills, said Steve Johnson, airport spokesman.
"Our folks do have a little more training in (handling) an airplane crash," Johnson said.
Sisolak said McCarran's firefighters can't do mutual aid because the teams must be able to reach the farthest runway within three to five minutes, at all times.
But no major aircraft has ever crashed at McCarran and airfield emergencies are sporadic, he said. So firefighters often have nothing to fill idle time.
"They're the highest-paid group of firefighters," Sisolak said.
Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@ reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.