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A change in Interagency Smokejumper Delivery System?

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Excerpts from Recent Paper repared for USFS Chief’s Signature

For several years the USDA, Forest Service (USFS) and the DOI, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) smokejumper programs have been using two different parachute
Systems. The Forest Service is currently using the FS-14 round parachute which is static
Line deployed and the Bureau of Land Management is currently using a ram air parachute that is a static line drogue deployment system. Both parachute systems are viable, however using different systems increases the complexity and decreases the efficiency of interagency smokejumping operations. On June 10, 2002 a memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by Jerry Williams, Directory, USDA Forest Service-Fire and Aviation Management and Larry Hamilton, Director, Bureau of Land Management-Office of Fire and Aviation. The purpose of the MOU was to establish an interagency project that will develop a recommendation for a next generation parachute system that will be used by both the (USFS) and (BLM) smokejumper programs. This effort to combine resources and provide complementary services without duplication will best serve the needs of all wildland fire management agencies, and the public, for protection of life, property and resources.

The Fire Directors of both agencies are committed to the adoption of one common
Parachute system in order to increase efficiencies and effectiveness in the smokejumper program while maintaining a high level of program safety. The interagency Smokejumper program is evolving. Along with their initial attack responsibilities, the
Programs are focusing more on extended attack fires where their ability to provide qualified incident commanders Type 3, 4, 5 and support to the local unit are value added to their current mobility, speed, payload and suppression effectiveness. Fires in the extended attack phase have had little emphasis and continue to be the area of fire suppression that offers the greatest opportunity to minimize exposure, reduce costs, and enhance safety for the public in the wildland urban interface. Reduction of the number of project fires that occur offers the greatest opportunity to reduce the overall costs of fire suppression, and lessen the overall risk to firefighters.

The June, 2002 MOU established a committee to pursue the Interagency Smokejumper Delivery System (ISDS). The ISDS committee was requested to conduct research and make recommendations to the directors of Fire and Aviation for both agencies. The ISDS committee is composed of three BLM and three USFS personnel. This effort to combine resources and provide complementary services without duplication will best serve the needs of all wildland fire management agencies, and the public, for the protection of life, property and resources. Further, an improved parachute system used by both agencies could decrease operational complexity without sacrificing current efficiencies and could produce economies of scale that would help reduce the cost of parachute procurement.

The ISDS Committee developed performance specifications to describe requirements for an interagency parachute system. Based on input gathered from a variety of sources including a survey of land managers who use smokejumpers and smokejumpers themselves, the performance specifications were the foundation for a Market Search/Request for Information which was advertised in July 2003. Ten vendors responded and between them proposed ten parachute harness/container sub-assemblies and 14 main parachute canopies. The Committee felt that the vendor responses warrant continued evaluation of commercially available parachute systems, rather than the pursuit of an in-house development project.

The Committee also agreed that the commercial proposals suggest that systems are available which are not used currently by either agency and consist of some sub-assemblies not familiar to either agency. Some offered performance specifications exceeding those advertised in the initial market search. A particular type system is prevalent among those meeting the revised interagency specifications: A ram-air main canopy deployed by a static line from a “piggyback” style harness/container sub-assembly. Ram-air parachute canopies are used only by the BLM, static line deployment of personnel parachutes is currently used only by USFS, and “piggy back” arness/containers are used by neither. Further, an industry standard of incorporating an automatic activation device (AAD) in such systems adds a sub-assembly with which neither agency has experience. An AAD is a mechanical safety device which will initiate reserve parachute deployment in the event that reserve deployment is warranted but hasn’t been accomplished by the jumper.

A static line ram-air parachute system training was held in March 2004 to familiarize 11 USFS and 3 BLM smokejumper evaluators with this type of equipment and its use. Integrated into the design of the training were provisions to abate hazards itendified in 1991 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citations issued to USFS as a result of a fatality on a different ram-air parachute deployment system. On the USFS side of the evaluation a miscommunication occurred between Washington Office-level Fire and Aviation Management and the ISDS committee which resulted in unauthorized training to occur involving USFS personnel. At that point in the evaluation USFS involvement in the process was suspended. Issues with the process were raised by the USFS, Washington Office, Office of Safety and Occupational Health (OSOH). Issued relating to safety, parachute systems selection, future smokejumper aircraft, USFS policy, training costs and adequacy of existing USFS loft facilities were raised. Tony Kern, Assistant Director, Fire and Aviation Management, USFS, requested this document to address concerns initiated by (OSOH).

The ISDS Committee’s evaluation process includes four phases: 1) Technical proposal evaluation, 2) Ground evaluation of equipment, 3) Jump evaluation and 4) Field evaluation. Phases 1, 2, 3, and 4 have decision points where agency F & AM managers have the ability to continue or disengage from the project. The fourth phase is an interagency field evaluation of the single best system to compare it against the existing USFS and BLM systems. This comparison will allow interagency managers to determine if the objectives have been met and whether there are significant improvements to warrant adoption of a single interagency system.

Business Plan:
The following is an assessment of costs associated with transition of 300 USFS smokejumpers to a new interagency parachute system:

Fiscal 05..Jump evaluation, travel, flight costs, etc. $229,000

Fiscal 06..Field evaluation, training, travel, flight costs $495,100

Training costs for 280 USFS smokejumpers $728,000

New Parachute System Acquisitions: The ISDS budget already includes the acquisition of 40 parachute systems for USFS field evaluations. For initial planning for 300 USFS smokejumpers, two units each (600) minus 40 already acquired during the evaluation phase leaves 560 units to acquire. Per unit cost is estimated to be $9000. Total cost for 560 units is $5,040,000. This could be done over a 3 year period.

USFS Engagement:
For successful engagement of the USFS back into the ISDS project several groups within the USFS who have ownership in the ISDS project need to be completely integrated and in agreement with the project process. Representatives of the USFS Union, USFS Office of Safety and Occupational Health, USFS Deputy Chiefs and other interest groups need to be kept aware of the issues and processes involved with the ISDS committee. For the USFS to engage into the ISDS process again these groups with ownership need to approve the scope and the process of the project.

Conclusion: There are multiple issues ongoing within the Interagency Smokejumper community. 1) future smokejumper aircraft platform procurement, 2) mission enhancement, initial attack with an increasing focus on extended attack incidents, 3) increasing abilities to safely fight initial attack, extended attack and mega-fires at night with new technologies to increase situational awareness, 4) development of an interagency parachute system.

At this point in the project the USDA Forest Service side of the ISDS committee requests the Chief’s approval to actively engage in the contracting process (including phases 1-4 evaluations during which Forest Service Smokejumper personnel will be actively involved) to obtain and evaluate proposed parachute systems with our DOI BLM partners.

At the conclusion of Phase 4 field evaluation the ISDS committee will make a recommendation to both agencies on their proposed course of action. Recommendations may include the following, adoption of a new parachute system, reject a new parachute system and stay with current agency specific parachute systems, or adoption of modified components.