USA–– The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association (AHSAFA) questions legislation for expanded Air National Guard role in wildland fire containment.
The wildland fires that have ravaged much of the Western US this summer have focused increased attention on the use of Air National Guard aircraft in the airtanker role. A recent news release by Congressman Elton Gallegly of California indicates he wants to amend a DoD bill to increase firefighting capabilities. Under this bill Air National Guard units would preposition C-130 aircraft equipped with mobile airborne firefighting systems (MAFFS). The aircraft would be available for immediate call-up by the US Forest Service (USFS) for initial attack at the outset of a fire.
The American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association opposes this legislation, because under H.R. 5965, as the Bill is tagged, there is no language requiring the USFS to utilize all industry operated airtanker assets prior to putting the Air National Guard aircraft into play according to Tom Eversole, Executive Director at AHSAFA. The Bill, as it now reads, effectively puts the government in a position of competing with independently-owned airtanker operators and helicopter companies engaged in aerial firefighting, under USFS contract. By law, a Federal agency cannot contract with another Federal entity for goods or services, unless it can be shown that they cannot be provided by a commercial enterprise as conveniently or economically as the other Federal agency according to the AHSAFA spokesman.
The legislation is being introduced at a critical time for the aerial firefighting industry, whose specially trained pilots–and aircraft–are literally ready to fly to a wildland fire at a moment’s notice. After decades of depending on converted, half-century old, but highly-maintained former military aircraft, the operators are well into a fleet modernization program–using their own money. If the USFS is given the latitude to call up the Air National Guard as a first resort, this could give the two remaining airtanker operators a disincentive to bring on the number of next generation airtankers, which the country desperately needs. The AHSAFA states this would also discourage other entrepreneurs from entering the airtanker business with modern equipment.
Additionally, there is the question of expanding the primary mission of the Air National Guard into the wildland firefighting business. At the time the legislation was introduced, four squadrons equipped with two MAFFS units–each–were available for firefighting. If the legislation were to pass, AHSAFA states a mission-creep scenario could develop in which usage of the Air National Guard in wildland fire protection is significantly increased. But in a report issued in 2010 by the Department of Defense (DoD) on joint use of Federal Forest Fire Fighting Assets/C-130 Firefighting Capabilities, the DoD took the position that given costs, training, and certification issues, the firefighting mission for the Air National Guard was not viable–in other than a secondary role. At a time when the assets of the Air National Guard are stretched thin, due to global defense commitments, aerial firefighting should not be among its highest priorities.
This is at least the third time that Congressman Gallegly has introduced this legislation over the past decade. Unless the Bill is structured to specifically state that Air National Guard assets would be used only if all commercial firefighting aircraft are already deployed, the AHSAFA urges Congress not to approve this legislative proposal.
Tom Eversole is the Executive Director of the American Helicopter Services & Aerial Firefighting Association, the Washington-based trade group representing the private operators of airtankers and helicopters engaged in wildland firefighting in the US.