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FAA investigation prompts leadership change, retraining for firefighters assigned to O’Hare, Midway airports

On July 26, the FAA’s lead airport certification/safety inspector sent a letter to Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee about an allegation the FAA had received about “unqualified personnel manning” Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting vehicles” at O’Hare and Midway.

Ground traffic is seen from the control tower at O’Hare International Airport in 2015.
The Federal Aviation Administration has received allegations of unqualified personnel manning firefighting and rescue rigs at both O’Hare (shown) and Midway airports in Chicago.
Associated Press file photo

Chicago firefighters assigned to O’Hare and Midway Airports will be re-trained under a new commander, thanks to an ongoing federal investigation into allegations that “unqualified personnel” were staffing specialty rigs assigned to air rescue.

“The FAA made an inquiry about certain circumstances related to training and certification. As we looked at it in response to the FAA inquiry, we resolved that there were some issues there,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters at City Hall.

“As a consequence, the individual who was in charge of that training was replaced by someone else.”

The Federal Aviation Administration’s lead airport certification/safety inspector sent a letter to Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee about the allegations on July 26; the FAA had received the allegations just the day before.

The letter stated that the “unqualified personnel” were manning “Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting vehicles” at both airports.

The letter specifically requested:

• A “qualified personnel list” from May 1 through July 25 of this year.

• “Personnel assignments with vehicle numbers for each shift” during that same eight-week period.

• Details of the “additional procedures” instituted by the Department of Aviation after verbal notification of allegations, on July 25 at Midway and July 26 at O’Hare. The letter did not detail those allegations.

The letter goes on to question whether the Department of Aviation’s “daily audit” of the manpower provided in the Fire Department’s daily roster had identified “any CFD personnel assigned not on the Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting “qualified list.”

If the answer was yes, Rhee was asked to provide specific dates and the actions taken “to communicate the staffing discrepancy” to the Fire Department and “correct the assignment discrepancy identified.”

“This matter is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration. If you desire to provide additional information, the action should be completed within ten days following receipt of this letter,” Tricia L. Halpin, the FAA’s lead airport certification/safety inspector wrote.

“The statement should contain all pertinent facts and any extenuating or mitigating circumstances that may have a bearing on this alleged interference from an airport-related viewpoint. If we do not hear from you within the specified time, our report on this matter will be processed for action without the benefit of your statement.”

FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro refused to comment on the ongoing investigation.

City Hall sources said Assistant Deputy Fire Commissioner Charles Roy, the fire chief in charge of O’Hare and Midway, has been placed on medical leave.

Deputy Fire Commissioner Tim Sampey will fill the void, along with Roy’s deputy, until a permanent replacement can be found.

Roughly 300 firefighters assigned to O’Hare and Midway are also expected to be re-trained and re-certified to drive on the airfield, City Hall sources said.

Roughly a dozen specialty rescue rigs are assigned to the two airports.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, said he does not believe there is any reason for the flying public to be alarmed.

“If the FAA has concluded that they’re not properly trained, I’m sure the city will step up and make sure that the training is received,” Taliaferro said.

“I don’t think we should be scared. We should take any investigation — whether it’s with our Fire Department or Police Department — look at our shortcomings, and make the recommended changes. If we have to have a chief that’s specifically trained to operate our airports, then we need to put that chief in that position.”

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), a former Chicago firefighter, said he would “dispute” any claim that Chicago firefighters assigned to O’Hare and Midway are not properly trained.

“Maybe back in the day. But now, they’re constantly being trained at the airport. ... All they do is train,” Sposato said.

“That is a place that guys come and go all the time. That’s the only thing.”