In 2001, I had my first full-time job in wildfire aviation as a helitack Fire Captain. Ignorance was bliss for me in the air, but all that changed when I heard two of our aircraft and crews had a midair collision over a fire in Mendocino County, named the Buss Incident. Both pilots were killed, and the aircraft was destroyed. The effect on the fire service and personnel was devastating and life-changing for us all in one way or another.
The wildfire aviation rule of engagement is now known as the Fire Traffic Area (FTA). The FTA was developed because of the tragic loss of two air tankers and pilots; the Buss Incident became yet another aviation lesson learned through tremendous loss.
The FTA is, in short, a self-imposed temporary flight restriction (TFR) zone for fire incident aircraft. The FTA may or may not be within a Federal Aviation Administration TFR. First responders in America term any emergency event as an “Incident,” which may be a fire, car wreck, shooting, or other natural or manmade disaster. Wildland fire Agencies throughout the United States maintain the FTA as one single unified policy related to flying over wildland fires.
The single scripted way in which all state and federal fire agencies engage is because of utilizing shared resources across agencies and borders anywhere in the United States. There is a saying that many policies have been written in blood, as we can attest to regarding the FTA when engaged in close air support in a chaotic environment.
So what is the FTA? The FTA is a communication protocol for firefighting agencies. It does not pertain to other aircraft with legal access granted by the FAA within a specific TFR. The FTA should not be confused with a TFR, a legal restriction established by the Federal Aviation Administration to restrict aviation traffic.
At the same time, the FTA is a communication tool for establishing protocol within firefighting agencies. Participating aircraft must adhere to TFR policies as set by the FAA. For example, if the TFR boundary of a polygon exceeds the 12-mile initial contact ring, clearance will still be required to enter the TFR. Aircrews proceed with standard FTA communication procedures if the TFR boundary is within the 12-mile ring.
How does the FTA differ from a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR)? All assigned/ordered aircraft must obtain clearance into the incident TFR by the on-scene aerial supervision or the official in charge of the on-scene emergency response activities. An aircraft dispatch form is not a clearance into a TFR.
Aircraft not assigned to the incident must stay clear of the TFR unless the communication is established with the controlling entity, Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS), Aerial Supervision Module (ASM), Helicopter Coordinator (HLCO), etc., and authorization is given to enter/transit the TFR. The first responding aircraft, typically on extended attack incidents, must have reasonable assurance that there are no other aircraft in the TFR.
This is done by making blind calls on the TFR frequency and other assigned air-to-air frequencies and double-checking with ground personnel at the helibase or Operations Section Chief (OPS) or Incident Commander (IC). There may be multiple aircraft operations areas within a TFR. Non-Incident aircraft may enter the TFR under the following conditions:
- The aircraft is carrying law enforcement officials.
- The aircraft is on a flight plan and carrying properly accredited news representatives.
- The aircraft is operating under the ATC-approved IFR flight plan.
- The operation is conducted directly to or from an airport within the area or is necessitated by the impracticability of VFR flight above or around the area due to weather or terrain; notification is given to the Flight Service Station (FSS) or ATC facility specified in the NOTAM to receive advisories concerning disaster relief aircraft operations, and the operation does not hamper or endanger relief activities. It is not conducted to observe the disaster.
Later in my career as a Chief Officer for CAL FIRE, I had the opportunity to engage in the education of fire, aeromedical, law enforcement, and military personnel regarding the FTA. That was also a point in my career where I was asked to assist in writing California’s catastrophic aviation response plan for the California Office of Emergency Services.
It was difficult to believe that there was no response plan for significant events that plague our country. I soon learned a few state plans out there, but the management of these large devastating events and incidents such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes is as diverse as the regions in which they occur.
The United States has adopted the National Incident Management System (NIMS) for congruency and for the ability of first responders to know how to work in one management environment versus hundreds.
Although different regions have different capabilities and management styles, NIMS is the go-to for most first responder agencies. The fire service is probably the most exercised with it as emergency incidents are occurring every day, where fire personnel gets to practice. First responder personnel from around the United States engage in large wildfire incidents annually.
During the building process of the California Catastrophic Aviation Response Plan, it dawned on me that not all states have the robust aviation response component as California. Out of sight, out of mind, was how much the aviation program was and is looked at. However, during a significant incident where many aircraft will need to be utilized to assist in the mitigation and recovery efforts, there is already a proven way to use large numbers of aircraft.
When the “big one” happens, many aircraft from different agencies and vendors will be needed for missions ranging from rescue to assessment. Without strict air coordination and a National Aviation Response policy, aircraft will be locked into a slotted timeline and altitude through strict Federal Aviation Administration Guidelines. I’ve heard, “well, we’ll have a military presence, and we can just put up an airborne controller or use an FAA tower. It all sounds good until the reality of support and communication with the ground troops are needed without time for a slotted mission, and towers are limited to what is on the radar.
A law enforcement agency recently asked a military department and me to provide some education on the FTA. That is where I believe we, the first responders, need to rethink what we are calling the FTA. When we say FTA, we are assuming and only training to fire, but what about all other incidents where the same blueprint can and should be used. Another saying is “out of sight out of mind .”In both the law and military environments, I’ve seen the lack of this kind of coordination where there are multiple players and frequencies.
It’s ok to fly in one’s sandbox, but what about when aircrews are asked to assist in someone else’s sandbox, with many others coming to play. Utilization of everyday flight rules is acceptable for a few aircraft, but that can all change very quickly during an emergency where many aircraft converge tactically. There will need to be a practiced, rehearsed structure for close air support if we are to provide the service we’ve all been trained for.
Rehearsing at the incident is not acceptable, and lives will be at stake early in any large-scale incident. I believe the FTA could and should be re-coined to the Incident Traffic Area (ITA). This would allow for cross-over and training in the Risk emergency environment where training should occur outside the fire service. During significant incidents, law enforcement, media, military, and civilian aircraft will be on the scene; why not train for it now?
The wildland fire service has one governing body, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), for certification for response in whatever capacity one responds in. This group has representation from all Federal, State, County, and Local agencies. Certification goes from single resource positions to taskforce and strike team leaders to group supervisors, branch, and operations through the incident commander, all of which fold into NIMS.
NWCG allows any agency to participate and sets the standards and certification for response qualifications. If the State of Florida asks for help and orders a division group supervisor for a fire and the State of Nevada sends one, Florida can bank on that person meeting a minimum qualification.
To my knowledge, this certification process is not established for the all-risk environment. This is where cross-over should and could be synonymous but is often blurred. The FTA is reviewed by sub-committees of NWCG annually and taught around the country in the wildland fire arena. The name change could be discussed there, but other agencies not involved with NWCG would benefit from its utilization on their own.
It may now be up to other responding entities with aerial assets that may be called upon to participate in a significant catastrophic event to start rethinking response and incident flight procedures.