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Cost of equipment upgrade concerns fire chief

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Rankin Inlet (Aug 07/02) - Kivalliq airports may have to buy almost half a million dollars in upgraded equipment and training thanks to new federal regulations on airport emergency equipment.

Effective June 19, 2002, all airports classified as "medium size" will have two years to install firefighting equipment with quick access to their runways. That means both Arviat and Rankin Inlet may need to upgrade their airports.

The new policy is just weeks old, but it is already creating concern in Nunavut. Manitok Thompson, the minister for Community Government and Transportation, has written a letter to federal Transport Minister David Collenette. Although the letter hasn't been sent, it says the territorial government can't afford the new equipment without federal assistance.

And Iqaluit Airport fire Chief Mike O'Gorman is worried that the extra expenses for fire equipment will mean other safety improvements will fall by the wayside.

"Anything to enhance safety, I think, is definitely beneficial to the communities," he said. "But at what price?"

Under the new rules, about 25 medium-sized Canadian airports must have firefighting equipment on-site which can reach the half-way point of the farthest runway within five minutes.

"Our goal is to constantly raise that bar of safety," said Peter Coyles, spokesperson for Transport Canada.

That means someone has to be on duty at the airport for every takeoff or landing of aircraft with 20 or more seats. And it means both Rankin and Arviat will need access to a fire truck capable of carrying 135 kilograms of dry chemicals and pumping 2,400 litres of foam. Both communities currently use their municipal fire trucks for airport emergencies. Both can use dry chemicals and foam, although their systems are not designed for airport emergencies.

O'Gorman estimates a new truck will cost between $200,000 and $250,000. Add to that money for training and the cost for outfitting both communities comes out to about half a million dollars.

Community options

Rankin and Arviat have two basic options. One is to buy the trucks and hire the staff. The other is to hammer out a contract with the local fire department to do the work. That might mean relocating some fire equipment to the airport -- and building a garage -- but it could save on equipment costs.

O'Gorman said the government is leaning toward the second option. Either way, the federal government has pledged $15 million to assist in first-year start-up costs, and $1 million annually in following years for operations and maintenance. Those ongoing costs could work out to $150,000 a year for Kivalliq airports, said O'Gorman -- money which would be used for staff training and salaries.

"The dollars we're putting into it could be spent on other safety-related issues more so," he said. Those include making runways accessible for instrument flights, upgrading weather operations and conducting more staff training.

Coyles said the money set aside by the federal government is designed to cover all of the costs of the upgrades -- both immediate and continuing. "The funds are there and are available. It's up to the airports to apply," he said.

But O'Gorman maintains the money could be better used.

"It just seems that they're being a little bit reactive, rather than putting the money into a proactive thing," he said.