Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Airport ‘ops’ chief: big man, big job

Peter Kramer has more duties than rescue, firefighting

Express Staff Writer

Peter Kramer communicates with workers from the side of the Friedman Memorial Airport runway last week. Photo by David N. Seelig

At 275 pounds, Peter Kramer is a perfect metaphor for the large, heavy-duty firefighting and rescue equipment he manages as emergency services and airfield operations chief for Friedman Memorial Airport.

In fact, it's likely Friedman's behemoth off-yellow airport crash trucks, snow plows and snow blowers are the largest of all wheeled vehicles in Blaine County.

They're but a few of the 20 pieces of equipment Kramer and a surprisingly small crew of five firefighters and three seasonal part-timers operate and maintain in mint condition, braced for some dreaded accident demanding speed and professional skills. They are trained for firefighting, rescuing and saving human victims and minimizing damage or interruptions to airport operations.

Happily, Kramer recalls, on-airport accidents have been rare during his 17 years as operations chief. Only one involved injuries. The only crash fatalities have occurred far from the airport involving inbound aircraft.

Although kept in spit-and-polish condition, some of Kramer's rolling stock—20 pieces in all—are 20 years old. Several, including a onetime Marine Corps front loader, were picked up at government surplus equipment sales, part of Friedman Manager Rick Baird's rigid cost-control mandate. If bought new, the Deere front-loader would've cost some $240,000, Kramer estimates, while he spent only $20,000 total on purchase and reconditioning and new parts.

Even one of the original Friedman firefighting vehicles, a 1976 Dodge, is still operating, converted into a flatbed utility truck. Military surplus has found its way into the machine shop (drills presses and cabinets), and old terminal ticket counters once destined for the scrap heap were grabbed by Kramer, reconditioned and put to use in the equipment shed.

"Our guys do an exceptional job of maintaining equipment," he says. "We're not loaded with money. We don't let it wear out. We keep it going."

Kramer has a thing about taking credit. During a driving tour of the airport, he insisted on emphasizing the work of his crew as well as others on the Friedman administration staff (a total of only about a dozen), airport tower controllers and the field's private Atlantic Aviation aircraft services operation, as well as the cooperation of pilots and the backup services of the city of Hailey and Blaine County.

So, if firefighting and rescues are virtually non-existent, what does Kramer's department do to stay occupied?


He chuckles, welcoming an opening to dispel any impression his crew just hangs around the firehouse.

Come winter and snowstorms, Friedman's snowplows and blowers—and sometimes private contract plows—can be hard at removal 24 hours a day. Kramer recalls one storm required 25 days of continuous plowing and clearing of the single runway, taxiways and ramp areas.

One of the large plows, a $600,000 giant, can handle 5,000 tons of snow per hour. Kramer points out that unless removal begins quickly when snow falls, an accumulation of a few inches can defeat timely removal and opening of the airport.

Removing snow is just the beginning. Kramer sometimes runs out of places on the airport to store it without interrupting flight operations and must cart tons of snow off the airport. Kramer can be found at the wheel of the big plows. Even manager Baird lends a hand in a pinch.

Year-round, his crew has other duties. Kramer cites 400 lights on the field that pilots depend on for taxiing and landing safety that must be checked and replaced. All the field's lavatories are cleaned and serviced by Kramer's team, which also cleans all the terminal's carpets and windows.

Runway and taxiway pavement must be maintained, along with striping for aircraft ground control and directions.

Training classes and drills take up other time. Friedman's equipment also is on call for any emergency within five miles of the airport.

The airport sent equipment to standby at the 2007 Castle Rock fire that threatened Bald Mountain and the city of Ketchum.

"If they (other cities and agencies) call, we go," Kramer said. Friedman's trucks have huge water tank capacities, as well as front-end firefighting snorkels that can discharge alternating geysers of water, chemicals and foam.

Then there are noise complaints from nearby resident, all handled by Kramer, who tracks down operators of aircraft who may have violated the voluntary noise-abatement program.

Kramer then calls complainants to explain his findings. Kramer also sends a letter to violators pointing out the need for observing noise-abatement procedures, such as no takeoffs or landings before 7 a.m. and after 11 p.m. Although the control tower is closed during most night hours, Friedman is considered a 24-hour airport. Friedman's noise-abetment program, widely publicized nationally in the aviation community, can only be voluntary. It's been largely effective because of pilot cooperation.

Some resident complaints involve older jets with noisier engines that operate legally in and out of Friedman. Other complaints involve "low flying" aircraft approaching Friedman that usually are only following landing procedures.

Pilots choosing to land at night can turn on runway lights from their cockpits by tuning VHF radio transmitters to a special frequency.

If Kramer's small force with big vehicles has a credo, it would be what he tends to say when asked about the array of duties.

"We do a lot with little."

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