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Close call at airport leads to transfer of two Tampa Fire Rescue captains

Four fire department vehicles crossed a runway as a plane was landing last month
Firefighters crossed a runway at Tampa International Airport in July as a plane was landing.
Firefighters crossed a runway at Tampa International Airport in July as a plane was landing. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times (2017) ]
Published Aug. 30, 2019
Updated Aug. 30, 2019

TAMPA — As a Southwest Airlines flight was landing at Tampa International Airport on a Tuesday morning in July, pilots and passengers may have wondered what was amiss as four Tampa Fire Rescue vehicles crossed the runway in front of the plane.

The fourth truck cleared the runway 875 feet in front of the Boeing 737 — about the length of three football fields — as the jet was slowing to taxi speed, according to a report from the Federal Aviation Administration detailing the July 16 incident.

The miscue took place during an FAA drill. The fire trucks crossed runway 19-L as they traveled to the drill location.

An investigation concluded that the firefighters failed to follow their training, which includes looking both ways before crossing a runway.

“Tampa International Airport’s training program clearly states that drivers must stop when approaching any open runway and verify they have permission from the tower to proceed onto or cross and to visually verify the runway is clear by looking right and left and checking the sky before proceeding,” the report said.

The violation of federal airport safety guidelines resulted in the transfer of Tampa Fire Rescue Capts. Javier Santos-Martinez and Joseph Berres. Firefighters were immediately retrained on proper procedures, including the need to clearly state their intention to cross an active runway.

Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Jason Penny, who confirmed the transfers, said the department had no further comment on the incident. An FAA spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Tampa Fire Rescue operates a fire station at the airport.

It remained unclear if the air traffic controller was punished for deviating from standard commands when saying “proceed as requested" when asked for permission to proceed by the lead driver. That gave the driver of the lead fire vehicle the wrong impression that they could cross they runway., investigators found.

The controller also sent the firefighters to the wrong location for the drill.

The investigation, concluded Aug. 21, found no violations of FAA rules by the airport.

“Your staff has indicated that the airport took immediate action to re-train the entire ... (fire station) department following this event. Records indicate that the drivers received appropriate training prior to this event, but failed to follow what was taught,” Anthony Cochran, a regional safety manager with the FAA, wrote to the airport.

Janet Scherberger, an airport spokeswoman, said the airport’s procedures weren’t the problem.

“Safety and security are top priorities at the airport. As the FAA noted, we are in compliance with their requirements. Our processes are sound,” she said.