Council, NNSA close to deal on fire services

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By Jennifer Garcia

An agreement to provide fire department services for Los Alamos National Laboratory and Los Alamos County may have passed a hurdle at Tuesday night’s County Council meeting held at the White Rock Town Hall.

County Administrator Max Baker presented a motion to council, which would authorize him to sign on behalf of the county and accept a financial assistance award from the National Nuclear Security Administration for a cooperative agreement to provide fire department services for the protection of Los Alamos National Laboratory and Los Alamos County with a county cost share not to exceed $17.8 million net total aggregate for five years.

“It’s a financial assistance agreement,” County Attorney Mary McInerny said. “Think of it as an award or grant. The term is five years, which will limit the amount of the cooperative agreement. Another (agreement) can be made at the end of five years.”

Council Chair Jim Hall moved to approve the motion to allow Baker to sign on behalf of the county. Councilor Frances Berting seconded the motion. After a vote, the motion was passed 5-0.

County staff is finalizing negotiations of elements of the cooperative agreement with NNSA and is expected to complete all negotiations by the end of the current federal fiscal year, Sept. 30.

The county administrator is seeking council approval of the parameters of a cooperative agreement so that it can be accepted and signed by the county by Sept. 30.

“We’re close to finalizing negotiations, that brings us great joy,” Baker said. “But there are still some issues remaining.”

Under federal financial assistance regulations, if the NNSA shares in responsibility for the performance of the project, — such as the protection of LANL and the county through fire department services — then NNSA is substantially involved throughout the term of the cooperative agreement with the county as the recipient of the financial assistance.

NNSA, the customer, has determined that substantial involvement will include the specification of overall minimum staffing levels, station 1 and 5 staffing levels, response times to major nuclear facilities and compliance with applicable fire protection standards for nuclear and high hazard facilities.

It will also require additional activity reporting and collaboration on, and review of, the county’s incident command system, pre-incident plans, training plans and operational response procedures. LAFD fire response personnel will continue to be trained for the hazards present at LANL and must have security clearances. The county’s fire department will continue to operate as a unified department.

Councilor Ken Milder made clear his feelings on the contract.

“It’s been a long, frustrating battle,” Milder said. “I’ve stated my concerns. Getting this contract finished will relieve concerns by firemen and employees. The grant is better than a three-and-a-half to one match. For every taxpayer dollar, the grant provides three-and-a-half to four dollars.”

The major difference between the cooperative agreement and current arrangements between NNSA and the county will be direct sharing of the total costs of the cooperative agreement. The county will annually contribute money to the budget for a net total of $17.8 million for five years in accordance with the approved annual budgets included as part of the cooperative agreement. The county also provides the personnel for the department and housing for fire department personnel in three fire stations owned and maintained by the county.

“To the public, this is transparent,” Councilor Michael Wheeler said. “The county will continue to operate the fire department. Negotiation was done for the citizens. To the community it looks like the county didn’t do anything. We’re providing services as agreed to through the (Department of Energy).”