The Cuyahoga County Airport in the eastern tip of Northeast Ohio isn’t as well known or as heavily trafficked as Burke, and most folks around Cleveland would have a hard time remembering it even exists — let alone pointing out its location on a map.
It sits on 640 acres and was servicing some 185 flights a day as recently as 2010, according to the most recent numbers. Most of those are private flights, but the airport also hosts taxi and charter services and boasts a flight school.
It was the airport from which a group of Case Western Reserve University students took off in a chartered plane in August before a tragic crash that left the four students dead.
While the plane crashed off of airport property, in the ensuing months the county has finally begun addressing some emergency response concerns detailed in a 2013 review of airport operations.
R.A. Wiedemann & Associations, based out of West Virginia, compiled the October 2013 Cuyahoga County Airport Operational Review, which included interviews and suggestions from the three local fire stations (Willoughby Hills, Richmond Heights and Highland Heights) that are responsible for responding to the airport, employees of Progressive Insurance (which uses the airport for its private jets), and airport employees.
Chief among the concerns outlined were the lack of resources and training on-site to respond to crashes and accidents. Specifically, the elimination of the ARFF truck (Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Truck) was cited by the CEO of Progressive and local fire chiefs as a dangerous move. (Airport employees were unable to say when the ARFF truck was eliminated.) The airport does have a pick-up truck with a 500-pound cylinder of Purple-K, a dry-chemical fire suppression agent.
“It is well below the capabilities of the specialized ARFF truck previously available on the airfield,” the report states, but “the additional response time by firefighting crews is highly objectionable.”
Highland Heights Fire Chief William Turner, who notes that the county and fire departments have begun meeting in recent weeks to address the concerns, says the ARFF truck “has been in storage at the facility. I thought it was gone several years ago, but it recently was brought back out but it’s not in services. Originally, they had said it was not a good financial decision to fix it and bring it back because it’s so old, but I found out it’s still there and might not need much work.”
In addition to supplies, the 2013 report notes that the fire chiefs “strongly advocate for ARFF training to be made available to their crews” and that the county “should investigate options for providing ARFF training program for local firefighting crews.”
This hasn’t happened yet to the full desires of Turner. There was one training at Burke Lakefront in August 2013, but “as far as specific training that’s designed for ARFF, we’ve never done it and that’s not something we’ve ever done as departments. Our role historically has been to support the initial response.”
That viewpoint — support of initial response — isn’t one shared by the county or the airport, which tends to view their responsibility not as first-responders but as support for the firefighters. “In an emergency, seconds count” the report says.
Chief Turner agrees, saying, “They need to have staff for that initial response because when we look at aviation type incidents, time is critical. Even though we’re in close proximity, there is still a delay.”
On average, local fire response times range from 1.5 minutes (Richmond Heights) to 3.5 to 5 minutes (Willoughby Hills).
Most of the suggestions are low-budget fixes for lingering problems that have hindered response times. For example, two of the three gates used by local firefighting crews require manual operation to open. A $500 or so device — the same kind used in first responder trucks to trigger traffic signal changes — could open the gates automatically and shave 30 seconds from response times.
Airport manager Dan DiGiammarino says they started getting quotes on the devices “about a month and a half ago.”
Additionally, the report called for a MARCS unit in the control tower. A MARCS unit simply allows all first responders and employees to coordinate and communicate on one channel directly . The tower didn’t have one and currently doesn’t, though DiGiammarino says they’re currently in the process of rectifying that situation.
Specific training for firefighters and airport personnel was pegged as inadequate in general, and some specific requirements for airport personnel set forth in county job descriptions, including a Hazardous Materials First Responder Certificate for the airport field supervisor, for example, haven’t been met.
A county spokesman has yet to respond to a request for comment.