Fire service says East End left without proper cover as crews have to prioritise airport
East end residents are having to go without a dedicated fire service for extended periods – because firefighting crews have to be assigned to cover the airport under international safety guidelines.
According to the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service, a manpower shortage means it is unable to respond to local emergencies for several hours on at least five days a week without drafting in fire crews from central and western parishes.
The BFRS has a total of nine personnel on duty at the Clearwater station at Southside at any one time – one team of four to handle local emergencies, and a team of five to provide firefighting capabilities at the LF Wade International Airport.
But under international aviation safety regulations, all nine firefighters are assigned to the airport when large passenger jets are scheduled to land – leaving no cover for any emergencies outside the airport.
The loss of local cover is believed to occur at least five evenings a week when the British Airways flight touches down. Firefighter crews have to be at the ready for several hours before and after a flight lands.
According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, the LF Wade International Airport currently has a category 5 firefighting capability rating – notifying airlines that a crew of just five firefighters is available for emergencies at the facility.
A minimum of eight firefighters must be on call for an airport to be given a category 7 rating – the next level up – while 15 firefighters must be on duty for an airport to be given the top category 9 rating.
The downgrade to a category 5 was made last Thursday. According to the FAA website, the airport can provide category 7 coverage “except for Mondays and Saturdays” – the two days of the week when British Airways doesn’t fly to Bermuda.
It is understood that British Airways expects airports to be rated a category 9 in order to be able to handle any emergency on its large, 777 aircraft.
However, according to the BFRS, the airline has agreed temporarily to continue flying to Bermuda if the island can provide category 7 coverage, with a team of at least eight firefighters assigned to the airport. The Royal Gazette understands that Bermuda authorities have 90 days to rectify the shortfall before British Airways reviews its position.
Despite the temporary reprieve, firefighter crews are having to work overtime to cover the shortfall.
Firefighter representatives held crunch talks with new National Security Minister Michael Weeks yesterday about the crisis.
According to one source, Mr Weeks was unaware of the staffing shortage prior to the meeting.
A spokesman for the Bermuda Fire Service Association said: “The minister was coming in blind and we were bringing him up to speed. It was a very productive meeting.”
The spokesman added that Mr Weeks’ predecessor, Renee Ming, was alerted to the manpower crisis last year – and rejected a suggestion that seasoned firefighters from overseas be drafted in to plug the gap.
It was claimed that Ms Ming insisted that only Bermudians should be recruited and trained up.
Firefighters have now passed a vote of no confidence in BFRS head Lloyd Burchall in part because of the staffing crisis.
In a statement, Nakia Pearson, the president of the Bermuda Fire Service Association, said: “This vote has been not taken lightly, but there have been numerous and unsatisfied concerns tabled before senior management and various Ministers over many years and promises have been made to rectify and correct these problems.
“These problems have included, but are not limited to, staffing levels, equipment, appliances adequacies to perform the tasks to maintain safety, staff training, long hours and public safety.
“This vote of no confidence means that the vast majority of the rank and file of the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service do not have the confidence or faith in CFO Burchall to effectively execute and perform his duties as the CFO to ensure the safety of the persons under his watch or the members of the public that the BFRS is charged to protect.“
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Transport confirmed that the airport had been downgraded to category 5 – but insisted that the problem was only short-term.
The spokeswoman said: “The Ministry of Transport is aware that Skyport recently underwent an audit as the airport operator. The audit concluded that the airport operator met a category 5 fire fighting capability as defined in the International CiviI Aviation Organisation’s classification.
“With this information, the Bermuda Airport Authority is currently assisting the airport operator, Skyport, in formulating an acceptable corrective action plan to submit to the regulator, Bermuda Civil Aviation Authority.
“This short-term measure, which is expected to last no more than 90 days, is the first step in mitigating the risk of this happening in the future.
“Skyport has informed, and the BAA has confirmed, that all commercial airlines providing services to Bermuda have been fully consulted on the temporary changes to ensure the airlines can continue to operate in Bermuda. Based on this consultation, they do not anticipate any disruptions to Bermuda’s air service.”
The spokeswoman did not respond to further questions from this newspaper yesterday.
A labour dispute in the fire service believed to be over vehicle breakdowns and equipment shortages was referred to a labour relations tribunal at the weekend.