Report says agencies need to improve firefighting safety

Agencies responsible for battling forest fires from the sky must work together to ensure the equipment they use is safe and firefighters are properly trained, according to a new report.

A more cohesive and thorough approach to inspecting aircraft would help prevent accidents similar to two fatal plane crashes during the summer 2002 fire season, according to the report, "Federal Aerial Firefighting: Assessing Safety and Effectiveness." An independent, five-person panel appointed by the Agriculture Department's Forest Service and the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management published the report.

The Forest Service and contractors supplying firefighting aircraft end up buying planes from the Pentagon's "boneyard" and converting them to fight fires by adding equipment such as fire retardant tanks. The Federal Aviation Administration inspects these retired military bombers, transports and patrol planes and makes sure that firefighters do not violate general air safety regulations. But beyond that, safety concerns are left up to the Forest Service and contractors who have no financial incentive to make sure aircraft are safe to fly, the panel concluded.

"Private operators, for the most part, have done an admirable job of keeping these aircraft flying," the report said. "However, they are handicapped by receiving little, if any, support from former military operators and the aircraft's original manufacturer."

Congress has not authorized the FAA to set standards and take responsibility for firefighting and other "public-use" aircraft, according to an FAA spokesman. This job is the responsibility of the agencies overseeing the aerial firefighting program, he said. The FAA does plan on talking with the Forest Service and BLM about establishing better national aerial firefighting safety standards, the agency spokesman added.

But the FAA has some leeway in choosing how involved it can be with inspections, and has chosen a very hands-off approach, according to the report.

"The FAA has essentially said, 'if it's a public-use aircraft. You're on your own,'" the report said.

The aircraft involved in fatal crashes during the 2002 firefighting season were both converted ex-military planes operated by Hawkins and Powers Aviation, a contractor based in Greybull, Wyo. In June, the wings separated from a C-130A battling a California blaze, killing three. And in July, a P4Y-2 broke apart mid-flight, crashing in Colorado and killing two. Five died in the tanker crash and one died in a separate helicopter crash.

"Possibly the single largest challenge now facing leaders of these federal agencies is to foster cooperation and collaboration among working-level staff, contractors and states to raise the standards of aerial firefighting in the United States," the report said.

The report recommended that federal and state agencies work together to clarify each agency's responsibility and develop a more effective national aerial firefighting program.

In addition, even "well-intentioned interagency coordination and cooperation arrangements" can create problems, according to the report.

"Questions arise as to effectiveness and efficiency of systems that require six or more separate national interagency coordinating bodies to agree on an action to be taken," the report said.

Some Forest Service and BLM safety policies need to change as well, the report added. For instance, the agencies do not require operators to install the damage-resistant voice and data recorders necessary for effective accident investigations on government-owned or contractor-flown aircraft.

Also, agencies do not set aside enough money to provide training for firefighters who fly the aircraft, and have not established enough guidelines for training the pilots.

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