At Tuesday’s Aspen Fire Protection District board of directors meeting, old business took the forefront of discussion, albeit mostly in a question-and-answer format between board members and attorney Karl Hanlon.
The issue at hand — formalizing a Memoriam of Understanding, known as an MOU, with the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport — involved a lot of technical terms: Pitkin County being home rule came up regularly, as did a Federal Aviation Administration certification known as Part 139 and incident command structures.
It’s no wonder Karl Hanlon, the Aspen fire district’s attorney, was present to answer board members’ questions on the matter, which is much more contentious than the jargon would imply to a layman.
At issue — at least from the Aspen fire district’s perspective — is that the agency should be the primary responding emergency authority to an incident at the airport, since the airport is in the fire district’s jurisdiction.
“The agreement from the 90s probably expired,” Hanlon said of the last MOU on file between agencies. “We should have had an updated MOU on response and command control. The MOU they proposed actually doesn’t have us in incident command structure at all.”
Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine echoed that sentiment.
“It says very clearly that they will make final decisions on anything operational that happens,” he said. “That’s where I have a problem. We, jurisdictionally, have to be included in that process.”
But not everyone agrees with that assertion.
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock pointed out that as a Part 139-certified airport, it’s actually federally managed land under the FAA.
“This issue that’s been, I think, a challenge in the discussion has been around preemption. Preemption, basically, is a legal concept that certain levels of government and their laws preempt other levels of government and their laws,” he said. “In this case, we’re a regulated party by the federal government.”
That means that should there be an emergency incident at the airport, it’s the airport’s responsibility.
“The reason we have incident command is we’re the responsible party; we’re the fire department,” Peacock said.
The Aspen fire district doesn’t see it that way.
“Part 139 lays out that there is federal preemption to the extent that it directly conflicts with state law as to certain issues,” Hanlon told the board. “It also lays out certain things like what is the response capability you have to have as an airport and gives you the ability to rely on local resources and actually the expectation that you rely on local resources to provide that response.”
Hanlon cited a 2015 Airport Emergency Plan to back up his argument that the Aspen Fire Department has an obligation as the local resource on which the airport must rely.
“By way of example, essentially on the tarmac, [the airport] is required to have one [Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting, or ARFF] truck that can be on site in three minutes and spray 3,000 gallons of foam. That’s it. That’s all they have to have on the airport,” he said.
“On their 2015 emergency plan, they identify [Aspen Fire] as the primary response agency that’s going to show up and fill in and take care of all those other things,” Hanlon added.
Board members asked several detailed questions to get clarification on the considerable technicalities involved.
“When we show up with five trucks and 40 guys, are they going to run the show? Who’s going to run the show?” Stoney Davis, board treasurer, posed to Hanlon.
“Underneath the proposed incident command, the sheriff and the airport would share the command structure,” Hanlon replied.
“So we’re talking ... zero firefighter training?” board president Karl Adam asked.
At that, Deputy Chief Parker Lathrop chimed in.
“Zero firefighter training,” he said. “Especially when it comes to structure and fuel fire, we’d be taking direction from people with no experience and no background in the subject. That’s why it’s important that we have a say how stuff is structured and how stuff goes.”
Though they weren’t present at the meeting, Peacock, Aspen-Pitkin County Airport Director John Kinney and Sheriff Joe DiSalvo would disagree vehemently.
“We have 17 people trained in ARFF under the FAA,” Kinney explained. “Then we have four people that are just dedicated to ARFF itself full-time, solely ARFF.”
DiSalvo reiterated several times that during his time working with the airport ARFF, he’s never had an issue.
“I work happily in conjunction with the airport on that, because they are truly the experts on aircraft disasters,” he said. “If an airplane crashed, it would be managed by Pitkin County and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, not Aspen Fire. They’re not designated as that.”
Indeed, the airport ARFF is a recognized fire department at both the state and national levels. It covers about four square miles and responders train daily.
“The incoming resources can also then make their own individual determination of how much more equipment they can dedicate,” Kinney said.
That’s why the proposed MOU has been sent out to every district between Aspen and Glenwood — so that a scalable response model exists. As for incident command, both Kinney and Peacock emphasized that command would go to whichever district arrives on scene first.
“There was just a table talk last week with an MOU. What’s at issue there is Aspen Fire has concerns that maybe they should be in control; however, I don't even know if they have any ARFF-trained...” Peacock started to say.
“They don’t,” Kinney said. “It’s expired.”
Both entities are on the agenda for an Oct. 8 Pitkin Board of County Commissioners meeting to present their respective arguments. Beforehand, though, their respective attorneys are meeting.
“It’ll be nice if the kids can get along in the playground,” Davis said about the upcoming meeting.
Balentine said Wednesday that he hopes the two entities can come to an understanding before an official presentation to commissioners.
“I made the offer to sit down ahead of a joint meeting with my chair, the chair of the fire district board, Rick and myself and just kind of prep so there was no surprises and understand where each other’s coming from — and I was told no,” Peacock said.
Ultimately, though, there is already agreement: On prioritizing safety, everyone sees eye to eye.
“It’s got to come down to the safety of the citizenry and the safety of the firefighters. That seems to be the point that’s being missed in this whole thing, and I just don’t get it,” Adam said.
The discrepancy, it appears, is on how best to ensure that safety.
“Even if Aspen Fire were the responding agency, it would have to be under a contract with us because they would not be responsible for the incident; we would remain responsible for the incident because we’re the regulated party,” Peacock said. “It may be that the board doesn’t understand those nuances.”