Federal Wildfire Activities: Issues Needing Future Attention

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-09-14.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                     United States General Accounting Office

GAO                  Testimony
                     Before the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health,
                     Committee on Resources, House of Representatives

For Release
on Delivery
2:00 p.m. EDT
                     FEDERAL WILDFIRE
September 14, 1999   ACTIVITIES

                     Issues Needing Future
                     Statement of Barry Hill, Associate Director,
                     Energy, Resources, and Science Issues,
                     Resources, Community, and Economic
                     Development Division

    Madam Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

    Each year, wildfires on federal lands burn millions of acres of forests,
    grasslands, and desert vegetation. While wildfires are being increasingly
    recognized as having ecological value in some circumstances, they can
    adversely affect human lives and property on state and private lands
    adjacent to federal lands. In an effort to reduce the adverse impacts of
    wildfires, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
    spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually preparing for, controlling,
    and extinguishing wildfires on federal lands.

    Today’s testimony is based on our recent report for the Subcommittee that
    described various aspects of the Forest Service’s and BLM’s firefighting
    program.1 That report addressed the process for budgeting for wildfire
    preparedness, the role of the National Interagency Fire Center, and the
    types of agreements that the agencies have with state and local firefighting
    organizations. The report also identified the following issues that could
    compromise the success of future firefighting efforts unless these agencies
    take steps to improve the management of their wildfire programs:

•   The Forest Service’s and BLM’s firefighting workforce is shrinking, thus
    leaving fewer firefighters to handle the workload. Some employees are
    committed to performing their primary job responsibilities and no longer
    choose to become qualified to fight wildfires and others cite family
    commitments as a reason for not fighting fires. Also, many firefighters
    nearing retirement age are no longer willing or able to fight wildfires.
    Because fewer employees are qualified to fight wildfires, fewer Forest
    Service and BLM firefighters will be available to fill critical wildfire
    management positions in the future and firefighter safety could be

•   The Forest Service and BLM are implementing new radio technology.
    However, the two agencies are purchasing different radio systems that
    may not be able to communicate with each other or with the systems used
    by other firefighting organizations. As a result, field officials are concerned
    that the new systems may prevent them from communicating with federal,
    state, and local firefighting organizations and could compromise firefighter

    Federal Wildfire Activities: Current Strategy and Issues Needing Attention (GAO/RCED-99-233,
    Aug. 13, 1999).

    Page 1                                                                       GAO/T-RCED-99-282
                       •   The Forest Service is using an outdated test to measure the physical
                           fitness of its firefighters; the test currently used by BLM is recognized as
                           more reliable. While the Forest Service plans to adopt BLM’s test, it has not
                           decided when the test will be implemented.

                           Madam Chairman, before we discuss the issues needing improvement, we
                           would like to briefly summarize the process used to plan, fund, and
                           coordinate federal wildfire preparedness efforts.

                           In fighting wildfires, the Forest Service and BLM employ permanent
Federal Wildfire           firefighting staff. These staff, located on the national forests and at BLM
Preparedness Efforts       field offices include, among other things, fire planners, dispatchers, and
                           engine mechanics. The Forest Service and BLM also use employees whose
                           primary job is not firefighting, but are trained to fight fires as a collateral
                           duty, to fight wildfires. In addition to these permanent employees, the
                           agencies hire seasonal firefighting staff (such as firefighting crews and
                           smokejumpers) during fire seasons.

                           In developing their wildfire preparedness budgets, the Forest Service and
                           BLM use the same computer model that determines, on the basis of
                           historical data such as fire activity, weather, and fire suppression costs,
                           the most efficient funding level for a firefighting organization. Then, the
                           national forests and BLM field offices develop operational plans to show
                           how they plan to allocate the amounts determined to be needed by the
                           budget planning process for such firefighting resources as personnel,
                           supplies, and equipment.

                           After the national forests and BLM field offices receive their annual funding
                           for wildfire preparedness, they revise their operational plans for the year
                           to reflect the funds actually received. With these funds, the offices decide
                           what firefighting resources will be positioned before the start of the fire
                           season and where these resources will be located. According to agency
                           officials, because the level of funding received is less than the level of
                           funds determined to be needed by the computer modeling process, the
                           national forests and BLM field offices take measures to compensate for the
                           reduced funding.2 For example, they have (1) removed fire engines from
                           service, (2) not fully staffed fire engines, (3) reduced the time that fire
                           engines were on-call from 7 to 5 days per week, (4) not hired seasonal
                           firefighters and/or hired seasonal firefighters for less than the entire fire

                            For fiscal years 1996 through 1999, the agencies received about 85 percent of the funds they estimated
                           they needed for wildfire preparedness.

                           Page 2                                                                          GAO/T-RCED-99-282
season, and (5) placed employees on involuntary unpaid leave or
temporarily transferred them to other work locations.

The National Interagency Fire Center (Fire Center) in Boise, Idaho, which
is maintained and operated by the federal land management agencies, is
the nation’s logistical support center for controlling and extinguishing
wildfires. As such, it coordinates the mobilization of firefighting supplies,
equipment, and personnel at the federal, regional, and local levels.

Wildfires are attacked through three levels of management
responsibility—local, regional, and national. Generally, efforts to control
and extinguish a wildfire are handled initially by the local agency
responsible for protecting an area from fire, whether that area is a national
forest, a BLM field office, or a state land management agency. Numerous
federal, state, and local firefighting resources, including engines, ground
crews, and air tankers carrying retardant, can be used to initially control
and extinguish a wildfire. Local agencies may also work together, sharing
personnel and equipment, to fight new fires as well as those that escape
initial suppression efforts. If a wildfire grows to the point where local
firefighting personnel and equipment are not sufficient to suppress
it—usually when 65 percent of all available firefighting resources have
been committed to other wildfires—the local agency contacts its
geographic area coordination center.

When this happens, the geographic area coordination center will attempt
to locate additional firefighters, equipment, and supplies within the
geographic area and dispatch the resources to the agency that requested
assistance. If the needed resources cannot be located, the geographic area
coordination center will order additional resources through the National
Interagency Coordination Center, located at the Fire Center. The
Coordination Center locates the closest available firefighting
resources—regardless of agency affiliation or location—and dispatches
them to the local agency requesting the resources. In addition to
dispatching firefighting resources, the Coordination Center gathers and
analyzes information about specific wildfire incidents and the overall fire
situation and reports the information to all federal and state land
management agencies.

To provide mutual support in suppressing wildfires, the Forest Service and
BLM have entered into numerous agreements and other types of
cooperative efforts with other federal, state, and local firefighting
organizations. We found that each of the three geographic regions we

Page 3                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-282
                   visited had different types of coordination agreements. Our review of
                   these different types of coordination agreements and discussions with
                   federal and state firefighting officials, however, suggest that no one single
                   type of coordination agreement or coordination process is better than
                   another. Forest Service, BLM, and state officials told us that, except for an
                   occasional disagreement over the reimbursement of firefighting costs,
                   their coordination agreements and processes are working well and they do
                   not see a need for changes. The officials universally agreed that it would
                   be virtually impossible for them to manage their firefighting programs
                   without the coordination agreements.

                   We found that the Forest Service’s and BLM’s firefighting workforce is
Firefighting       shrinking. As a result, fewer qualified firefighters are available to handle
Workforce Is       the wildfire workload, which could compromise firefighter safety.
Shrinking          According to Forest Service and BLM officials, there are several reasons
                   why some employees no longer become qualified to fight fires as a
                   collateral duty.

               •   First, staff who do not fight fires as a primary duty—such as resource
                   specialists—are committed to carrying out their primary job duties and do
                   not want to spend time fighting fires. Because of downsizing, the Forest
                   Service and BLM do not have staff available to temporarily fill positions
                   when fire-qualified employees are off fighting fires. Therefore, the
                   employees’ normal workload will be waiting for them when they return
                   from fire duty.

               •   Second, many families have dual careers, and the additional income
                   earned from fighting fires would not, in their view, offset the
                   inconvenience and expense involved in, for example, rearranging their
                   schedules and providing for additional child care. In the current
                   environment, many employees are unwilling to abandon family
                   commitments to fight wildfires.

               •   Third, for many employees, the rate of overtime pay for fighting wildfires
                   is less than their regular base salary rate—thereby negating any financial
                   incentive to fight wildfires. The disparity in wildfire overtime
                   compensation—where a truck driver may make more than a wildfire
                   incident commander who is responsible for managing all firefighting
                   activities—discourages some older, more experienced employees from
                   fighting wildfires.

                   Page 4                                                       GAO/T-RCED-99-282
                       •   Last, the aging workforce is shrinking the Forest Service’s and BLM’s
                           firefighting capabilities. Specifically, many older employees who are
                           qualified to fight wildfires are unwilling to do so because it is more
                           difficult for them to keep up with the physical demands placed on
                           firefighters and the satisfaction gained from fighting wildfires no longer

                           Forest Service and BLM officials are concerned about their shrinking
                           firefighting workforce because developing a cadre of qualified wildfire
                           management personnel takes many years. Coupled with the competing
                           demands and an aging workforce, fewer fire-qualified employees will be
                           available to fill critical wildfire management positions. For example, the
                           average age of BLM’s wildfire incident commanders exceeds 50 years of
                           age—the age at which firefighters are eligible to retire. It generally takes at
                           least 17 years of training and wildfire experience before a firefighter is
                           qualified to function as an incident commander.

                           In our August 1999 report, we recommended that the Chief of the Forest
                           Service and the Secretary of the Interior work together to develop a
                           combined strategy to rebuild their firefighting workforce. Forest Service
                           and BLM officials agreed that a combined strategy should be developed to
                           explore the various options available for increasing the size of their
                           firefighting workforce. The agencies recently contracted with a consulting
                           firm to study workforce issues and the results are due on April 1, 2000.

                           By January 2005, all federal land management agencies are required by the
Lack of Standardized       National Telecommunications and Information Administration to change
Radios Is a Safety         their radio systems from wideband to narrowband.3 The Department of the
Issue                      Interior decided that its agencies, including BLM, will purchase narrowband
                           digital radios because they believe that the radios have capabilities over
                           and above those of narrowband analog radios, such as the ability to
                           receive and transmit data. The Forest Service, however, decided that it will
                           purchase narrowband analog radios while it studies the merits of
                           narrowband digital radios. The Forest Service has done so because
                           narrowband digital radios are about twice as expensive as narrowband
                           analog radios and narrowband digital technology is still being developed.

                           Local officials from the national forests and BLM field offices that we spoke
                           with are concerned that changing from wideband to narrowband radios

                            Narrowband radio technology allows communications to take place in half the channel space that is
                           required for wideband technology. In analog radios, voice signals are sent over the air in an unaltered
                           form while in digital radios, the voice is converted to a digital format before being sent over the air.

                           Page 5                                                                            GAO/T-RCED-99-282
could compromise firefighters’ safety in two ways. First, these officials
believe that narrowband analog radios are not completely compatible with
narrowband digital radios. Consequently, after the conversion, they
believe that Forest Service and BLM firefighters may find it difficult to
communicate with each other. Second, they believe that state and local
firefighters may still be using wideband radios and may not be able to
convert their radio systems to narrowband for several years because of the
costs involved. These officials believe that narrowband radios cannot
communicate with wideband radios; consequently, federal firefighters may
not be able to communicate with state and local firefighters unless they
use two independent radio systems.

Forest Service and BLM headquarters officials, however, believe that
narrowband analog and narrowband digital radios will be compatible for
two reasons. First, they said that by changing the frequency setting on
narrowband digital radios, narrowband analog radios will be compatible.
Second, they believe that a series of standards supported by the
telecommunications industry and federal agencies will ensure that after
the conversion to narrowband technology, all federal, state, and local fire
fighters will be able to communicate with each other.

To resolve the radio compatibility issue, the Fire Center is testing the
compatibility of narrowband analog and narrowband digital radios during
the 1999 wildfire season. Additionally, Forest Service and BLM
headquarters officials said that they have begun discussing the need for an
agreement that will specify that both agencies purchase only narrowband
digital radios beginning in fiscal year 2003. However, while such an
agreement would solve the radio compatibility issue between the Forest
Service and BLM, the issue of whether narrowband radios will be able to
communicate with the wideband radios used by the state and local
firefighting agencies and organizations will remain unresolved.

Given the uncertainties surrounding the conversion to narrowband radio
technology, we recommended, in our August 1999 report, that the Chief of
the Forest Service and the Secretary of the Interior (1) develop and
communicate to all firefighters a strategy for converting to narrowband
radio technology that ensures that radio communications between all
federal, state, and local firefighters will not be affected by the conversion
and (2) delay the purchase of narrowband radio equipment until the
equipment is fully developed and tested. The Forest Service and BLM
agreed with our recommendations.

Page 6                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-282
                     Fighting wildfires requires a high level of fitness so that firefighters can
Agencies Using       safely perform physically demanding work in difficult conditions. All
Different Physical   firefighters must meet minimum physical fitness standards for the types of
Fitness Tests        firefighting duties to which they are assigned. While the Forest Service and
                     BLM follow the same fitness standards, they use different tests for
                     determining the physical fitness of their firefighters.

                     BLM  uses a “work capacity test” to qualify firefighters for three levels of
                     firefighting duty—arduous, moderate, and light. For example, to qualify for
                     the most difficult firefighting duty, each firefighter must walk a 3-mile
                     course in 45 minutes or less while carrying a 45-pound pack. Before taking
                     the work capacity test, however, each BLM employee must complete a
                     physical-screening questionnaire designed to identify health risk factors
                     such as age, heart problems, and high blood pressure. On the basis of the
                     results of the screening process, at-risk employees are required to take a
                     physical examination, including an electrocardiogram, before taking the
                     work capacity test.

                     The Forest Service used the work capacity test, but not the screening
                     questionnaire, to measure a firefighter’s physical fitness until earlier this
                     year, when an employee died while taking the test. Since that time, the
                     Forest Service has used the “step test” to determine the physical fitness
                     of its firefighters. After the 5-minute step test, a firefighter’s pulse rate is
                     taken, and it should not exceed a specified rate based on the firefighter’s
                     age. However, the step test is not as demanding or representative of the
                     physical fitness needed to fight fires as the work capacity test, and the
                     results of the step test can be affected by outside stimulants such as
                     caffeine and tobacco. Consequently, a Board of Review4 evaluated the
                     events surrounding the death of the employee and issued its report to the
                     Forest Service.

                     The work capacity test more typically simulates the actual physical
                     demands on firefighters because it requires them to walk specific
                     distances within specific times while carrying varying amounts of weight
                     to simulate carrying firefighting tools. To ensure that firefighter safety is
                     not compromised by inadequate physical fitness tests, we recommended,
                     in our August 1999 report, that the Chief of the Forest Service issue policy
                     direction as soon as possible on how the work capacity test is to be
                     administered—including the possible use of BLM’s physical screening
                     process. The Forest Service agreed that the work capacity test is the

                      The Board of Review is a panel of individuals convened by the Chief, Forest Service to review and
                     make recommendations with regard to accident investigation and complaint reports prepared by the
                     Forest Service.

                     Page 7                                                                        GAO/T-RCED-99-282
                 appropriate test to use to determine the physical fitness of its firefighters
                 and that the test, along with an appropriate physical-screening process, is
                 needed. The Chief of the Forest Service approved the Board of Review’s
                 recommendations on August 27, 1999 and the Forest Service is currently
                 working with the Department of Agriculture’s Office of General Counsel to
                 develop a strategy to implement the Board’s recommendations.

                 Optimizing the success of future firefighting efforts will be difficult for the
Conclusion       Forest Service and BLM unless they take steps to rebuild their firefighting
                 ranks; ensure the compatibility of communications systems between
                 federal, state, and local firefighting organizations; and ensure the physical
                 well-being of their fire-qualified employees by using the best physical
                 evaluation methods possible. Our report made recommendations on each
                 of the three issues, and both the Forest Service and BLM concurred with
                 the recommendations. It is important that these agencies expeditiously
                 implement the proposed corrective actions.

                 Madam Chairman, this concludes our testimony, and we would be happy
                 to respond to any questions that you and the Members of the
                 Subcommittee may have.

                 For future contacts regarding this testimony, please contact Barry Hill at
Contact and      (202) 512-8021. Individuals making key contributions to this testimony
Acknowledgment   included Linda Harmon, John Kalmar, and Robert Arthur.

(141376)         Page 8                                                        GAO/T-RCED-99-282
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