By Sarah Hogsed
Register News Writer
In a letter sent Sunday to the Joint Munitions Commander, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr strongly urged the Army to exclude the Blue Grass Army Depot firefighters from the sequester furloughs, which began Monday, because of community safety concerns.
BGAD spokesperson Mark Henry said Monday that base commander Col. Lee G. Hudson and the congressman are working with the firefighters to appeal their exemption denial. Henry said the decision was not in the hands of the depot leadership.
Depot security personnel, which numbers about 153 employees, has been granted an exemption, Henry said. The fire department employs 19 or 20 workers, he added.
Federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, are being required to cut their spending by 20 percent through employee furloughs because of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
Also Monday, the commander of Blue Grass Chemical Activity sent out a press release stating that while 108 BGCA employees began their furlough this week, its emergency operations technicians were exempt in accordance with Department of Defense guidelines.
The BGCA is a tenant unit of the depot that is responsible for the safe and secure storage of more than 500 tons of chemical weapons.
“BGCA’s commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Grice, related that the BGCA’s number one priority remains the safety of the chemical weapons stockpile,” the release stated. “BGCA will not compromise the safety, security or protection of the workforce, community or environment.”
The emergency operations personnel was granted an exemption by the director of the Chemical Materials Activity, BGCA’s headquarters.
BGCA spokesperson Chasity Pearson did not immediately respond to an inquiry about the job duties of emergency operations technicians.
Last week, several sources connected to the depot came forward voicing concern that dropping the fire department from seven firefighters to five per 24-hour shift because of the furlough would hamper efforts to contain a fire or chemical-related emergency at the installation.
The depot also has mutual aid agreements with the Richmond and Madison County fire departments. Madison County Fire Chief Jim Cox said his department relies on the depot to help bolster manpower when needed and also during emergencies involving hazardous materials.
Last year, Richmond closed Fire Station 5, the firehouse closest to the depot, and Cox said two firefighters, sometimes three, are typically on shift at the nearby county Fire Station 2.
Barr, R-6th District, and his staff have been working since March to notify the Army of the risks associated with furloughing BGAD firefighters.
In a letter sent Sunday to Brigadier Gen. Kristin K. French, Joint Munitions Command, Barr asked for her support in “encouraging the Department of the Army to reconsider the decision to furlough BGAD’s fire personnel.”
Barr references a memo sent in May by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that stated emergency personnel that are “necessary to protect safety of life and property” should be exempt from furlough “to the extent necessary to protect life and property.”
Because BGAD is both a storage and demilitarization facility for conventional and weaponized chemical weapons, “a fire could have catastrophic and far-reaching consequences for the base and surrounding area,” the letter stated.
“The multiple leaks at the base in recent years have illustrated exactly why all emergency personnel need to be present to properly manage any emergency situation,” the letter goes on to say.
Also, the BGAD firefighters serve as medical personnel and are the only ones permitted to transport injured people off base, Barr said in the letter.
Barr pointed out that Madison County relies on the depot for mutual aid.
“... Furloughing BGAD’s firemen will not only leave BGAD vulnerable during furlough dates, but it will also mean severely delayed response times for the people of Richmond who rely on BGAD fire personnel to manage emergency situations within the community,” Barr wrote.
The letter describes the situation as one of “urgency” and asks the brigadier general to reconsider the firefighter’s furlough because it will have a “negative impact” on the safety of the depot and the surrounding area.
Sarah Hogsed can be reached at email@example.com or 624-6694.