A report was recently released on the crash of a plane last August at Abbotsford International Airport. Abbotsford Airport Authority photo

As Abbotsford airport grows, changes to its fire-rescue service raise concerns

In recent years, airport shifted from full-time firefighting positions to adding those duties to other jobs

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Jonathan Davis told The News that fatigue rules are to be enforced by air operators. In fact, he said that safety regulation and enforcement is being shifted to air operators.

As the Abbotsford International Airport (YXX) has soared to record-breaking traffic numbers in recent years, the airport has also made changes to its emergency services that has one aviation safety advocate concerned.

Following the crash at the Abbotsford International Airshow, The News received a tip that the airport had shifted its airport rescue firefighting (ARFF) duties away from full-time firefighting positions.

RELATED: Plane that crashed after Abbotsford airshow wasn’t allowed to carry paying passengers: report

Documents obtained through a freedom-of-information request confirm that firefighting duties have been made part of the work of other full-time positions.

The airport entered a contract with J & M Airport Services Ltd. in April 2010, employing two full-time airport rescue firefighting (ARFF) personnel. That contract was valid for three years, and extended three times until June 30, 2016.

But since that contract expired, those firefighting duties have been added onto job descriptions for engineer, mechanic and technician positions, according to airport documents.

RELATED: Passenger counts continue to soar at Abbotsford International Airport

Meanwhile, between 2016 and 2018, the annual passenger count has increased from 530,000 to 840,000, and Sidhu expects that number will push the one-million mark this year.

Sidhu says the airport now has three positions that include firefighting duties, more than the two full-time positions previously employed, and job requirements for those with ARFF duties include training as set out by the Canadian Aviation Regulations.

But Jonathan Davis, an aviation safety advocate who has worked with Transport Canada, says the shift from full-time firefighter positions – positions that would be considered professional firefighters rather than, for instance, professional technicians – is counterintuitive.

“Eventually they’re going to need a full-time fire department,” Davis said. “You’ve got a heightened risk factor, and yet at the same time you’re displacing the things that mitigate those risks. When an aircraft crashes, the first thing you want is a firefighter there.”

RELATED: Abbotsford airport has another expansion in the works

Sidhu says the shift is part of a wider trend over the past couple decades, with most airports shifting to the “specialist model” to generate cost efficiencies – between 2010 and 2016, the airport spent a total of nearly $4 million on its contract with J & M Airport Services, including more than $1.2 million in 2010.

Abbotsford International Airport emergency services contract

“We’re representing the public the best we can, and we actually have a proactive safety culture and a proactive approach to everything,” Sidhu said.

“On top, we have more skilled, overall rounded people and understand the airfield and the importance of understanding the airfield. And the staff are engaged and they have other duties to do. Any emergency is top priority, and it’s done 100 per cent anytime something happens.”

He added that, like other airports, YXX relies on the local municipal fire-rescue service to respond to incidents.

But Davis says he’s been seeing the industry as a whole making changes that he says run counter to the fact that overall more and more planes are taking to the sky.

For one, Davis notes that Transport Canada will be allowing air operators to do their own in-house training and testing for pilots.

“As aviation grows, weird, counterintuitive things are happening that I think are going to bite is in the butt, to be honest.”

Report an error or send us your tips, photos and video.

Dustin Godfrey | Reporter


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