The 188th Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard will return to providing fire and rescue protection at the Fort Smith Regional Airport at the start of 2018.

Pro-Tec Fire Services, an airport firefighting contractor based in Green Bay, Wis., has provided protection at the local airport since the fall of 2014. The airport joint-use agreement was dissolved then with the mission change for the 188th from a manned fighter wing to a remotely piloted aircraft wing.

Faced with no rent from the 188th Wing for use of 140 acres and deficit spending to pay for the contract with Pro-Tec, the Fort Smith Airport Commission accepted the 188th Wing’s proposal Tuesday during its regularly monthly meeting.

Airport Director Michael Griffin told commissioners that at the rate of spending over the past several years, the commission would be forced to seek city subsidization in five years. The airport has traditionally maintained a savings to back 10 percent matching grants from the FAA and the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics.

The 2018 contract with Pro-Tec would have cost $265,000, plus equipment maintenance costs.

An agreement with the 188th Wing will only require the airport to pay equipment maintenance costs and salary of a new airport staff employee to serve as a liaison with the 188th and provide maintenance to firefighting equipment.

Since paying for its own fire protection through Pro-Tec, the airport’s operating deficit has been as high as $379,305. In 2016, the airport commission was able to bring the deficit spending down to $178,403 by removing some big-ticket items. The 2017 deficit spending for fire protection has been $256,400.

A renewed contract with Pro-Tec was signed in 2015 to pay for a six-man crew of 18-hour aircraft fire protection. The contract allowed for one-year extensions.

Fire protection from the 188th will eventually offer 15 firefighters with 24-hour service, 365 days a year.

Before October 2014, the airport had taken airport fire and rescue protection from the 188th in trade for use of airport property. When the 51-year lease with the 188th was signed in 2003 for a token $1 a year, the property's fair market valued was more than $1.6 million.

The recent development follows the news from January when the 188th Wing was approved to fund 15 firefighters to protect the air base. It had fallen out of compliance with the change in mission and loss of its fire crews.

In the past three years, the airport has purchased a new aircraft firefighting truck and refurbished two older fire trucks, largely with Federal Aviation Administration grants. A new $3 million airport fire station is now under construction to house the new fire truck. It's too big for the 188th's old fire station.

Prior to the commission’s unanimous vote Tuesday, Pro-Tec Fire Services Regional Chief Dan Diehl of Oklahoma City expressed concern of substandard fire rescue response from an Air Force unit. He said he has seen similar situations at airports in Des Moines, Iowa, and Oklahoma City in which joint-use agreements were re-established only to find that there was “no accountability" and it was hard to maintain a crew of part-time personnel.

Master Sgt. Terry Edwards, 188th Wing fire chief, took exception to Diehl’s statement. Col. Tenise Gardner, 188th Mission Support commander, said all but two of the firefighters who were with the 188th before the mission change were coming back to serve at the airport. There are currently seven firefighters with the 188th Wing and eight more expected to be on staff by the middle of December.

“To say the Air Force is not trained … I’d put those firefighters against anybody,” Edwards said. “I take it as an insult that you’d say that DOD (Department of Defense) firefighters are not well trained and that you’d say I would not answer to these gentlemen.”

Diehl said Pro-Tec would not accept Griffin’s invitation to stay until February, but he would submit a contract bid if the commission decided later on it was not satisfied with the 188th Wing's services.

Language for the new agreement with the 188th Wing came out of the former joint-use agreement, Gardner added.

"I'm confident they can provide the service," Griffin said of the 188th Wing. "It will get us back to as balanced of a budget as we can."