Santa Barbara City Council got a first look at a plan to cut the number of firefighters contracted to be on call at the airport in case of catastrophic event. By cutting the crew from nine to six and reducing the number of engines from six to three, airport administrators estimate they could save $600,000 a year. Driving the proposed reduction is the 26 percent drop in flights and passengers at the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport over the past 10 years, coupled with large payments needed to cover the $53 million the new airport building cost. Compounding matters, the Elephant Bar — a money-generating restaurant located on airport property — went out of business 18 months ago.
With the losses of income, the airport — a self-sustaining operation separate from the city’s general fund — lacked the resources needed to refurbish a host of buildings initially constructed during WWII. Trimming the emergency service contract — which provides specially adapted fire trucks and personnel trained to maintain exits for trapped crew and passengers — would still meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s minimum requirements. But even airport administrators described the reduction as “not ideal.”
No catastrophic event has taken place within the memory of City Fire Chief Pat McElroy, but he added that his emergency crews respond to about 50 calls for service at the airport a year. The firefighters union has opposed the proposal, warning behind-the-scenes of dire consequences. McElroy, himself a former union president, stated he could go along with the plan so long as the services could be restored when airport travel picks up. Most councilmembers were uncomfortable at the prospect of such a change and agreed they needed more information before they could make an informed decision.