Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
The U.S. Forest Service is going to pay for still another air tanker study. The agency has issued a solicitation (AG-024B-S-12-0003) for private contractors to produce a report that:
…proposes at least three (3) alternatives that demonstrates the effectiveness of airtankers, heavy helicopters and water scoopers (defined in terms of aircraft use, aircraft characteristics, bases, contracts, costs, dispatching, mission objectives, tactics, strategy and communications).
This will be the sixth air tanker study in the last 17 years. Here is the list:
- 1995-1996: National Air Tanker Study (NATS)
- 2002: Blue Ribbon Panel report
- 2005: Wildland Fire Management Aerial Application Study
- 2007-2009: National Interagency Aviation Council, Interagency Aviation Strategy
- 2010: “An Examination of the United States Forest Service’s Need for Large Aviation”, by the Rand Corporation
- 2012: (this new study: “Aerial Firefighting Effective Use and Efficiency”)
The secret Rand air tanker study
In 2010 the USFS hired the Rand Corporation for an air tanker study that is being kept secret. The agency would not provide a copy of it even after we requested it under the Freedom of Information Act. They replied, saying “…the report is proprietary and confidential Rand business information and must be withheld in entirety under FOIA Exemption 4”. Their refusal letter went on to say: “The data, analysis, and conclusion in this report are not accurate or complete.” The letter also said they wanted “to protect against public confusion that might result from premature disclosure.” But, according to Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise, the agency paid the Rand Corporation $840,092. What a deal for Rand, for submitting an inaccurate and incomplete report.
The new study
This new report must be submitted within 154 days after the award, which makes it due as the 2012 fire season is winding down, probably in October or November.
The USFS ordered the writers of the 2010 Rand report to specifically exclude Very Large Air Tankers (VLAT) from their study. The new solicitation does not exclude them in writing, but neither does it include them. It requires the contractor to:
Define the utility and operational parameters of large airtankers (LAT), heavy helicopters (defined as Type 1), and water scoopers in accomplishing the variety of aviation missions supporting wildfire management…
The solicitation repeatedly refers to “large air tankers (LAT)” being studied, so it appears that again VLATs will not be included since they are not mentioned at all. Apparently the USFS thinks they already have enough information about the DC-10, 747, and any other air tankers that can carry 5 to 10 times more retardant than the air tankers we are currently using. In other words, “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with facts”.
The aborted study
This is at least the second solicitation for an air tanker study that has been issued since the 2010 Rand report. The USFS announced on August 15, 2011 that they intended to award a second contract, at that time a non-competitive contract, to the Rand Corporation to continue studying the air tanker issue. It seemed counter-intuitive that anyone would award another contract, especially a non-competitive contract, to a company that months before had produced a similar product the same buyer described as inaccurate and incomplete. Two weeks later the USFS canceled the solicitation, “due to the responses received expressing interest in this procurement”. The USFS has not announced that any contracting officers or high-level managers were disciplined or fired over that debacle.
Why pay for another air tanker study?
This additional air tanker study continues the analysis paralysis of the last 17 years. Continuing to kick the can farther down the road decade after decade allows our leadership in Boise and Washington D.C. to postpone the terrible ordeal of making a decision. Their air tanker strategy appears to be: “Make no tough decisions, but continue to order and pay for study after study until we retire. Then let someone else deal with it.”
Rome our forests and grasslands burn, the USFS leadership fiddles around, making only 11 or 12 large air tankers available on exclusive use contracts this fire season, 75 percent less than we had 10 years ago.
Another theory about why the USFS repeatedly pays for more studies is that they will keep doing it until an “unbiased” outside expert submits a result that the agency silently is hoping for. For example, the 2010 Rand report recommended an emphasis on scooper air tankers. But the USFS has never awarded an exclusive use contract for scoopers, unless the two that USFS Chief Tom Tidwell referred to when he testified before Congress on March 6 turn out to be exclusive use. (He may have been referring to the two CL-215 scoopers that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has had on contract.)
It is a common belief that USFS leaders have a strong bias against scoopers, even though many agencies have had great success with them, including: Los Angeles County, Minnnesota, North Carolina, Department of Interior, Canada, and several countries in Europe. According to the Rand report, when a suitable body of water is reasonably close, a scooper can deliver more gallons onto a fire and at a much lower annualized cost than a conventional air tanker or a large helicopter, especially when considering the cost of retardant, which ran $1.97 per gallon on the Fourmile fire in Colorado in 2010.
On a news program today someone described military officers as being decisive. My first thought was that effective managers and leaders in the fire service are decisive. (As proof, I offer the 2008 Sprint-Nextel commercial.) I’ve worked with hundreds of them. Then I thought about the inability of the U.S. Forest Service leadership to make a decision about a specific and detailed long term air tanker strategy.
The White House declares Open Government – except for the U. S. Forest Service?
I can’t find anything in this new 62-page solicitation that says the information submitted will remain private, secret, proprietary, or confidential — or, that the public is likely to be confused by its disclosure. I will be very interested to see if the U.S. Forest Service treats this report, like the Rand report, as secret as the information held in the vaults of the CIA. Mr. Tidwell and Tom Harbour, USFS Director of Fire and Aviation, should remember that the cover-up is worse than the original crime.
The principles of Open Government, as described by Mr. Tidwell’s boss, do not necessarily apply to the operations of the CIA, but the U.S. Forest Service is in a very different category.