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Shutdown could threaten fire service for Yeager

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fire protection for Yeager Airport could be threatened if the federal government shutdown lasts more than a week or so, said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard.

Failure of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to reach a budget deal by midnight Monday led to a shutdown of the federal government. On Tuesday, Hoyer sent 1,150 of West Virginia's fulltime National Guard employees home, part of a nationwide series of furloughs for government workers who were suddenly unfunded by the shutdown.

However, state officials consider some of those workers too important to not be on the job, even if it remains unclear how they will be paid. Those workers include 30 firefighters at the 130th Airlift Wing in Charleston, who provide fire and rescue services for Yeager Airport.

Those 30 firefighters, and 35 more at the 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg, are among 389 important National Guard employees whose salaries are partly or completely reimbursed by the federal government, Hoyer said. Those reimbursements won't come during a government shutdown.

Hoyer said the state will pick up the total brunt of salaries for those employees for the moment, in hopes of being reimbursed after Congress resolves the budget issues and the government shutdown is over.

Hoyer said state officials have calculated it will cost the state about $277,000 to fund those workers for the next seven days. But, he warned, "You can only float $277,000 for so long." If the budget shutdown lasts more than a week, Hoyer said state officials would have to look at cutting additional National Guard personnel.

If a shutdown goes on long enough, the firefighters who protect Yeager Airport will eventually be on the chopping block, Hoyer said.

Yeager Airport Director Rick Atkinson hopes that doesn't happen. Atkinson has been in talks with National Guard officials about ways to keep Yeager open if the shutdown drags on.

Like Hoyer, Atkinson said the state can pay the firefighters who serve Yeager for the first seven days of the shutdown. After that, he said local officials would have to come up with another plan.

"We don't have an answer yet," he said.

But, Atkinson said, "We will not let the airport shut down because we don't have fire service."

However, he said the National Guard might be forced to cut back on the number of firefighters or hours of coverage provided to the airport.

"As this plays out, we'll have different contingency plans," he said. "We'll have something in place."

But Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said he won't tolerate cutbacks in fire protection for the airport. If federal officials don't end the shutdown and the National Guard can't afford to keep funding the firefighters at Yeager, he said the county would step in to provide the money.

"We will not allow the airport to go unprotected," he said. "We will not have one less firefighter there. Not one."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.

 


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