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Reno Controller Incapacitated While on Duty; Was Forced to Work Radar Positions Alone Due to Extreme Understaffing - (6/24/2008)

CONTACT: Rich Ferris, NATCA Reno Facility Representative, 661-345-1501; Hamid Ghaffari, NATCA Western Pacific Regional VP, 661-400-2496; Doug Church (NATCA Washington, D.C.), 301-346-8245 

RENO, Nev. – An air traffic controller forced to work alone due to extreme understaffing in the radar facility that handles airborne traffic around Reno-Tahoe International Airport was incapacitated while on duty by chest pains that were initially diagnosed as an apparent heart attack late Monday afternoon. The controller was transported to a local hospital by paramedics.

As he was experiencing chest pains at approximately 5:40 p.m. PDT, the controller called controllers in the control tower about his condition and they raced into action to call paramedics and take measures to ensure the safety of the flights that were under the stricken employee’s control. Normally, at that time, there are approximately six to 10 aircraft in this airspace. 

Normal staffing for this shift in the radar room is three controllers, or two controllers plus one supervisor. But on Monday, as has been the case repeatedly since last fall, only one controller was working. 

“The FAA has left us in a position where we cannot provide the level of service that Reno needs,” said NATCA Reno Facility Representative Rich Ferris. 

With one veteran controller retiring this Friday, staffing will drop to just 11 fully certified controllers at the facility, which handles both radar and tower functions – 10 without the services of the controller who suffered the heart attack Monday. An additional eight employees are in training, with one more trainee expected to arrive after completing initial classroom training in Oklahoma City. NATCA believes 27 is the safest level of staffing for Reno, including trainees, meaning current staffing levels are nine fewer employees than what is needed. 

Furthermore, as of this Friday, the percentage of trainees to total workforce will rise to a staggering 44 percent, well beyond what an FAA facility can handle for effective training, according to a Department of Transportation Inspector General report released just two weeks ago. Ferris said the training process at Reno is severely degraded. 

“The staffing here is to the point where we cannot train anybody effectively because there is nobody left to train them – they’re all working because we are so short-staffed,” Ferris said. “We are attempting to train in the radar room. However, due to staffing issues, the training is inconsistent and, therefore, not effective.” 

On Tuesday, in a direct response to the incident last evening, Ferris said the FAA has decided it will soon close the radar room from midnight to 5 a.m. because of understaffing. This means the airspace will be transferred to another critically understaffed facility, Oakland Center, which would not have the radar capability to “see” aircraft below 11,000 feet in the mountainous terrain around Reno. What has been an unsafe staffing situation will become even more critical, Ferris said. 

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