Failures of the “Open Government Initiative”

Open Government, President Obama
From the White House’s web site: http://www.whitehouse.gov/open

Unfortunately we have had to run this image previously on Wildfire Today when we pointed out examples of the U.S. Forest Service flagrantly violating the Open Government Initiative established by President Obama.

The latest occurrence is the agency’s refusal to fully cooperate with the investigations into the deaths of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona on June 30. The U.S. Forest Service provided so little information that it was described as “useless” by one of the investigation teams, short-circuiting an opportunity to learn lessons that may prevent future tragedies. They supplied heavily redacted documents and would not allow a hotshot crew that was working nearby during the accident to be interviewed. The agency cited the Privacy Act of 1974 as the reason for their intransigence. In the hundreds of investigation reports of serious accidents that have been completed over the last 80 years, I don’t recall any others in which the USFS refused to allow their employees to be interviewed due to the Privacy Act of 1974 or other similar concerns.

At Fire Aviation we first asked for a list of Type 1 helicopters that were on exclusive use contracts on April 16, 2013, hoping to receive it well before the western wildfire season got underway. We were told that the list was only available if we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which we did. After many delays, uncountable emails, excuses, and receiving incorrect information, we finally got it on September 26, five months after asking for it. Federal agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days. In this case it took 167 days including weekends.

The USFS refused to release the $840,092 RAND air tanker study even after we filed a Freedom of Information Act Request. The agency told Wildfire Today  “…the report is proprietary and confidential RAND business information and must be withheld in entirety under FOIA Exemption 4″. Finally RAND released it two years after it was completed, but as far as we know the USFS never did. Somehow the USFS concluded that Exemption 4 did not apply to the other air tanker studies that have been completed, some of which were also done under contracts to private companies.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

5 thoughts on “Failures of the “Open Government Initiative””

  1. Page 10 of Inspection Narrative for ASFD says …. ADOSH’s request to interview BRIHC and ASM2 Bravo33 Thomas French and John Burfiend was denied by the USDA, Office of the General Counsel. It has been noted that p 15 of WFAR has a footnote(#6) that references ADOSH interview with ASM2. Does anyone have an opinion to offer regarding this discrepancy? The same page from this report indicates Marsh had communication with ASM2 shortly after 1600. There is a different account of Marsh having communication with ASM2 at 1630 (p15 Worksheets for Citation). At approximately 1630 Marsh reported that they were going down *the* escape route to *the* safety zone. ASM2 asks if everything is okay, Marsh responded that everything is okay they are just heading to *the* safety zone.
    Aso, I didn’t realize Chief Willis switched roles at 1020 on June 30 (SPGS2 to OSC). I didn’t see that information until yesterday. Thoughts?
    Many thanks to Bill Gabbert and John Dougherty and many others!

  2. USFS information is on a “need to know” basis, and Wildfire Today doesn’t need to know. The USFS is completely capable of doing their own investigations with their own experts without anyone else’s input.

    1. I am not sure what this comment is in regards to…but…the USFS didn’t allow access for the ADOSH investigation. The USFS is a government operation subject to the same FOIA rules as any agency – so, no, information is not on a need to know basis.

      I am hoping that the comment is a sarcastic response – if not, I hope you aren’t a government servant with that type of attitude.

      1. I believe that there really is a different set of rules in play here: the States do not have the Constitutional Authority to compel the Feds to do anything, including follow the State FOIA rules.
        Without being a Lawyer, it seems that the Feds are standing their ground on a larger “precedent-setting” issue, regardless of how much those of us in the wildland fire community would like to hear from the folks on the Blue Ridge Hotshots.
        There are already some really BIG issues that have emerged and must be dealt with to help prevent/reduce future tragedies. Let’s not get too hung up on this one point.

  3. Refusal to fully cooperate with the investigations.

    And who or what can make them? Unfortunately, that is that, isn’t it? Funny, I believe I heard those same words in our son’s death investigation from the BLM…..

    Not surprised about the FOIA at all. Not surprised about the lack of cooperation, either. This seems to be the NORM, not the exception. When we requested documents by way of FOIA concerning our son’s death, didn’t receive much of what was requested, reason was cited as being “too sensitive” for us to view. What was given to us was so blacked out in many places it was useless to decipher anything. But that was the whole point, wasn’t it? Give us useless info, after waiting months and months for it! If there is nothing to hide, why act as if there is??

    My heart hurts everyday for those families, having to go thru this. I knew a little of what awaited them, as I live this everyday. Those precious 19 men, their families now must navigate this road, and it hurts.

    Yes, I am just one mom, who lost just one son. But if any good at all can come from losing those precious 19 men, it has to be a call for reform. There has to be some way to change the way these “investigations” are performed.

    Thank you Bill Gabbert for this website, true, I am not a firefighter and don’t know much, but the hurt these families now must go thru, those feelings I do know. With such a massive loss of life, this is the best the USFS can offer???

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