Help Us, Help You: A Call for Collaboration in Aerial Firefighting

Commitment and Responsibility

As aerial firefighting operators, we understand the immense weight of responsibility we carry. Every flight tests our mettle, pushing us to the limits in environments where danger lurks around every corner. Ensuring the safety of our crews and the communities we serve is not just a priority, it’s an unwavering commitment woven into the fabric of our operations.

Federal land management agency staff carry responsibility as well. An entire world looking to them for effective wildfire response guidance, a duty to a public that can’t decide if the fire should be put out or not, and the job—no, the conviction to “do the right thing”, no matter what it takes. Their commitment is challenged by an agency culture that is resistant to change, budgets that never go up, and staffing that feels like winning the lottery if you get approval to fill a vacant position.

Unfortunately, this commitment is being tested for everyone. The past few years have seen a great deal of contention between the Agencies and Industry. Contention is a choice, but so is collaboration. The United Aerial Firefighters Association (UAFA) was formed to focus on collaboration. Instead of adversarial competition, we propose a collaborative and responsible approach. By fostering mutual respect and trust, we can ensure a comprehensive wildfire response that safely achieves our collective goals of managing and protecting public lands and the public itself.



Years of solicitation and contract award protests have left the agency staff weary and angry.  They are overworked, undervalued and just plain tired. Fire Leadership is often faced with pressure from Congress or Agency Leadership to “just do more with less.” Those pressures may be manifested to Industry in the form of contracts that are written to focus on the bottom dollar or calls and emails that don’t get timely responses.


Industry must do “more with less” too. Whether it is lowest price technically acceptable award determinations or limited numbers of exclusive use contracts to go around, neither make it easy to maintain the experienced pilots and mechanics we believe the agency wants, be ready at a moments notice without any guarantees AND give them all the shiny new toys that the private equity funded tech industry wants to sell them.  Moreover, the lack of agency resources contributes to less time to eliminate out-of-date and costly contract requirements that impede Industry.



The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission’s Aerial Equipment Strategy Report offers a roadmap for collaboration. Part of it is being realistic about future capabilities, the cost, and the time it will take.


“The Government must not hesitate to communicate with industry as early as possible in the acquisition cycle to help the Government determine the capabilities available in the marketplace. Government acquisition personnel are permitted and encouraged to engage in responsible and constructive exchanges with industry…” (Federal Acquisition Regulation 1.102-2(a)(4))


Future Capabilities

We’ve all heard that Artificial Intelligence and other tech is going to change the way we manage wildfires. That may be true, but unless the inventors are working with the operators to make sure it will work and then talking to the agencies and Congress to make sure they will buy it, it won’t happen. “Build it and they will come” doesn’t quite work when your only customer is the government.


Future Cost

Can you imagine having to price a contract in 2019 for contract from 2020-2025 without being able to increase your price, even when COVID and high inflation occur?  A recent report by Conklin de Decker estimated that to fly a new single engine airtanker (SEAT) for 90 days and 90 flight hours would cost almost $1,500,000 a year. Add 10-15% for the risk of a fixed price contract and you can easily see that as aircraft age out and the agencies want newer ones, prices will only go up.



Future Time

If industry is creating a new product or service, 1) it needs to convince the government it needs it, 2) the government needs to request funding for it, 3) a program manager needs to work with acquisition staff to purchase it and 4) it needs to be trained/implemented. This cycle, on a good day, can take 3-4 YEARS.  Lead times for new aircraft or to retrofit, tank and test existing aircraft is YEARS.  Europe and Canada unfortunately are in line ahead of us for the new ones.

Implementing the WFMMC recommendations, however, requires concrete action from both sides:

For Agencies:

  • Embrace transparent and early engagement with the industry: Share future needs and procurement plans, allowing operators to plan investments and develop capabilities accordingly.
  • Explore alternative contracting models: Move beyond the “lowest price wins” approach. Consider performance-based contracts that reward effectiveness and incentivize innovation.
  • Invest in joint training and exercises: Foster communication, understanding, and trust between agency personnel and aerial crews through collaborative training and real-world simulations.
  • Review capabilities and certification requirements for outdated, obsolete requirements that are no longer relevant or necessary in a next-generation Industry and are extremely costly.

For Industry:

  • Demonstrate cost-effectiveness and transparency: Partner with agencies to develop realistic cost models that reflect true operational expenses and future needs.
  • Prioritize safety and innovation: Invest in training, advanced technologies, and maintenance practices that guarantee the highest safety standards and enhance firefighting capabilities.
  • Establish industry-wide communication and advocacy: The United Aerial Firefighters Association is building a united front, fostering collaboration, and amplifying the collective voice of aerial firefighters to create real change.

Collaboration is not just about finding solutions; it’s about building trust. Regular meetings, open communication channels, and joint problem-solving will pave the way for a more efficient and effective aerial firefighting system. By embracing this solution and prioritizing collaboration over confrontation, we are committing to working together and ensure these essential aircraft continue to serve our communities with unwavering dedication and safety. Remember, this is not just about protecting our Industry, it’s about protecting the communities we serve.


Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Recommendations

Recommendation 2: Efforts should be made to include contractor perspectives in any future strategy development given that, at this time, the majority of aviation resources in the federal fleet are owned and operated by contractors.

Recommendation 3: A national strategy should consider all ownership models, including contracting and government ownership of aviation resources.

Recommendation 5: Contracting process should meet operational demands, including the option of reliable longer-term contracts for baseline capacity needs and every effort should be made to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the contracting process.

Recommendation 6: The types of contracts used should meet the needs of a national strategy rather than allowing cost considerations and current procurement policies to override programmatic needs.

Recommendation 8: Congress should provide funding for greater availability of aviation-related training and staffing at all levels.

Recommendation 9: Explore the feasibility and appropriateness of allowing private contractors to provide NWCG-qualified support staff.

Tiffany Taylor
Tiffany Taylor
Tiffany Taylor is the Senior Policy Director for the United Aerial Firefighters Association. She has almost 25 years’ experience in federal government acquisition. Most recently she was the Senior Procurement Executive (SPE) and Program Management Improvement Officer (PMIO) for USDA, overseeing the buying of everything from commodities to research to all-hazards incident support (wildfires, animal disease outbreaks, COVID, etc.) and providing acquisition expertise and recommendations to the Secretary. As the SPE, she was responsible for the approval of all major non-IT acquisition strategies, like Forest Service Aviation and Retardant. As the PMIO, she established the requirement for all major non-IT programs to develop integrated program teams and develop program-level acquisition strategies. Prior to her SPE position she was the Chief of the Contracting Office for all Forest Service Incident Support contracts. In this role she was responsible for the effective execution of all contract actions issued for incident support. She also has experience purchasing aviation spare parts from European original equipment manufacturers and training simulators for Department of Defense agencies.

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