Damage from lightning blamed for thousands in extra security costs at Tacoma Narrows Airport

Officials believe the tunnel outside the Tacoma Narrows Airport was likely damaged by lightning, causing an estimated $35,000 in extra security and maintenance costs. (Mike McCarty, Q13 News)

Pierce County officials say lightning is believed to have damaged a tunnel outside the Tacoma Narrows Airport, causing what is estimated to be at least $35,000 in additional security and maintenance costs.

The bulk of that money, more than $30,000, is being paid to a private security company to monitor the tunnel 24 hours a day in case of a fire, officials said.

County communications director Libby Catalinich said in a email that the damage is believed to have occurred on either the first or second day of December.

After the tunnel was inspected, the maintenance and operations department was informed Dec. 7 that the fire monitoring system was not functioning properly, she said. The system appeared to be “damaged by a power surge, speculated to be associated with a lightning strike,” Catalinich wrote.

Pierce County is paying a private security company to monitor the tunnel at the Tacoma Narrows Airport in case of a fire. (Mike McCarty, Q13 News)

The 530-foot-long tunnel stretches over Stone Drive at the north end of the airport near Gig Harbor. Its construction was completed in 2009 as part of a $15.5 million runway safety project to protect vehicles and pedestrians from a short landing or an airplane running off the runway.

When working properly, the monitoring system sends an alert to the fire department and sounds an alarm onsite if there is a fire, county fire marshal Warner Webb said. With the system down, the fire department determined the tunnel must be monitored at all times for safety.

County employees monitored the tunnel the first three days, but those duties were handed off to the security company Dec. 10, Catalinich said.

The tunnel stretches over Stone Drive at the north end of the airport near Gig Harbor. It was added in 2009 as part of a $15.5 million airport runway safety project. (Mike McCarty, Q13 News)

To compound the issue, maintenance and operations manager Bruce Wagner said the replacement part is proprietary and can only be ordered from the manufacturer. It is not expected to arrive until Jan. 30, he said.

In the meantime, contracted security personnel continue to sit parked outside the tunnel, tasked with watching the structure and alerting first responders in the event of a fire.

The county has paid the company $24,881, Catalinich said, for that service from Dec. 10 through Jan. 15. The total cost of security is expected to reach $30,416 before the problem is fixed, she said.

The total amount to fix the tunnel including security, parts and labor is estimated to range between $35,000 and $37,023, Catalinich said. That will be billed to the portion of the county's road fund allocated to maintenance and operations, she said.

Some good news? That's about $10,000 less than originally thought, she said, because the maintenance and operations department is planning to install a camera monitoring system Jan. 22 that will take the place of security and could lead to a permanent fix.

The county is considering replacing the existing monitoring system with a secure video system permanently, Catalinich said, to “eliminate dependence on a system that is beholden to sole-source proprietary components and parts.”

The fire marshal is reviewing that plan, she said.

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