Wildland Fire Management:

Interagency Budget Tool Needs Further Development to Fully Meet Key Objectives

GAO-09-68: Published: Nov 24, 2008. Publicly Released: Nov 24, 2008.

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Wildland fires have become increasingly damaging and costly. To deal with fire's threats, the five federal wildland fire agencies--the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture and four agencies in the Department of the Interior (Interior)--rely on thousands of firefighters, fire engines, and other assets. To ensure acquisition of the best mix of these assets, the agencies in 2002 began developing a new interagency budget tool known as fire program analysis (FPA). FPA underwent major changes in 2006, raising questions about its ability to meet its original objectives. GAO was asked to examine (1) FPA's development to date, including the 2006 changes, and (2) the extent to which FPA will meet its objectives. To do so, GAO reviewed agency policies and FPA documentation and interviewed agency officials.

FPA is both a computer model and a broader management system for developing the five agencies' wildland fire budget requests and allocating funds. FPA is intended to allow the agencies to analyze potential combinations of firefighting assets and potential strategies for reducing vegetation and fighting fires to determine the most cost-effective mix of assets and strategies. The agencies began developing FPA in 2002 and completed the first part of the model in October 2004. As the agencies began using FPA, however, agency officials raised concerns about its underlying science and the extent to which it met agency management and policy objectives. As a result, in 2006 the agencies conducted a review of FPA, which questioned FPA's basic modeling approach. The agencies made substantial changes to FPA after the review, some of which followed from the review's recommendations. For example, as recommended, the agencies established a new oversight body comprising senior agency leaders. The agencies also made fundamental changes to FPA's modeling approach for analyzing the firefighting assets needed to respond to fires, but these changes went beyond the review's recommendations and, despite FPA's importance and cost, the reasons for these changes were not fully documented. The agencies expected to complete the FPA model in November 2008--about a year later than initially estimated--and to begin using FPA's results in spring 2009 to develop their fiscal year 2011 budget requests, a delay of about 3 years from their initial goal of using FPA's preliminary results in 2006. FPA is expected to cost about $54 million to develop. Although it is not yet complete and GAO conducted only a limited review of its available components, FPA shows promise in achieving some of the key objectives originally established for it; nevertheless, the approach the agencies have taken hampers FPA from meeting other key objectives. Among the most important objectives, FPA will (1) provide a common framework for the five federal agencies to analyze firefighting assets and develop budget requests across agency jurisdictions, (2) analyze the most important fire management activities, and (3) recognize the presence of certain nonfederal firefighting assets that may be available to respond to fires on federal land. FPA falls short, however, with respect to other key objectives. First, FPA has limited ability to project the effects of different levels of vegetation reduction treatments and firefighting strategies over time, meaning that agency officials lack information that could help them analyze the long-term impact of changes in their approach to wildland fire management. Second, the modeling approach the agencies are taking cannot identify the most cost-effective mix and location of federal firefighting assets for a given budget but, rather, analyzes a limited number of combinations of assets and strategies to identify the most cost-effective among them. More broadly, the current FPA approach involves considerable discretion on the part of agency officials, increasing the importance of making decisions in a transparent manner so that Congress, the public, and officials throughout the agencies understand FPA's role in budget development and allocation.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the FPA model's ability to identify needed firefighting assets and the best locations for these assets--and recognizing that developing FPA will be an iterative process that will require the agencies' continued effort to improve--the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the agencies to develop a strategic plan for the continued development of FPA, which would (1) include an evaluation of FPA's ability to meet its key original objectives; (2) identify ways to improve the model to better meet these objectives; (3) clearly state whether the agencies believe any of the original objectives are no longer appropriate, and why; and (4) identify the steps the agencies plan to take to improve FPA and the expected time frames and associated budget needs for completing these steps. To allow the agencies sufficient time to identify issues that may arise as they implement FPA, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should submit this plan to Congress no later than September 30, 2010. In particular, we believe that the strategic plan should, at a minimum, address ways to improve FPA's ability to (1) evaluate different mixes and locations of firefighting assets, so that FPA recognizes the relative priority of different values at risk when assessing how best to protect the wildland-urban interface and increase the number of acres meeting fire management objectives; (2) identify the most highly valued resources, such as endangered species habitat or important cultural sites, that the agencies seek to protect; (3) model the effects over time of different investments in fuel reduction treatments and firefighting strategies on the cost of suppressing future wildland fires; and (4) analyze trade-offs between increases and decreases in firefighting assets that are under national or regional control.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2012, the Department of the Interior provided the "Business Process Review and Technical Review" document that it, along with the Forest Service, commissioned to evaluate FPA. The report did not address this recommendation. GAO contacted the Department in April 2012 and officials did not indicate they were taking any additional steps to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the FPA model's ability to identify needed firefighting assets and the best locations for these assets--and recognizing that developing FPA will be an iterative process that will require the agencies' continued effort to improve--the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the agencies to develop a strategic plan for the continued development of FPA, which would (1) include an evaluation of FPA's ability to meet its key original objectives; (2) identify ways to improve the model to better meet these objectives; (3) clearly state whether the agencies believe any of the original objectives are no longer appropriate, and why; and (4) identify the steps the agencies plan to take to improve FPA and the expected time frames and associated budget needs for completing these steps. To allow the agencies sufficient time to identify issues that may arise as they implement FPA, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should submit this plan to Congress no later than September 30, 2010. In particular, we believe that the strategic plan should, at a minimum, address ways to improve FPA's ability to (1) evaluate different mixes and locations of firefighting assets, so that FPA recognizes the relative priority of different values at risk when assessing how best to protect the wildland-urban interface and increase the number of acres meeting fire management objectives; (2) identify the most highly valued resources, such as endangered species habitat or important cultural sites, that the agencies seek to protect; (3) model the effects over time of different investments in fuel reduction treatments and firefighting strategies on the cost of suppressing future wildland fires; and (4) analyze trade-offs between increases and decreases in firefighting assets that are under national or regional control.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2012, the Forest Service provided the "Business Process Review and Technical Review" document that it, along with the Department of the Interior, commissioned to evaluate FPA. The report did not address this recommendation. GAO contacted the agency in April 2012 and officials did not indicate they were taking any additional steps to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve their agencies' abilities to develop their budget requests and allocate funds using FPA, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should report annually to Congress on (1) their progress in completing the steps outlined in the strategic plan for the continued development of FPA and (2) FPA's ability to meet each of its key objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2012, the Department of the Interior provided the "Business Process Review and Technical Review" document that it, along with the Forest Service, commissioned to evaluate FPA. The report did not address this recommendation. GAO contacted the Department in April 2012 and officials did not indicate they were taking any additional steps to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve their agencies' abilities to develop their budget requests and allocate funds using FPA, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should report annually to Congress on (1) their progress in completing the steps outlined in the strategic plan for the continued development of FPA and (2) FPA's ability to meet each of its key objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2012, the Forest Service provided the "Business Process Review and Technical Review" document that it, along with the Department of the Interior, commissioned to evaluate FPA. The report did not address this recommendation. GAO contacted the agency in April 2012 and officials did not indicate they were taking any additional steps to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To increase agency transparency in using FPA to develop their budget requests and allocate funds, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should report annually to Congress on FPA's role in the budget development and allocation process. This report should include, at a minimum, information on (1) how the agencies weighted the measures FPA uses to evaluate different mixes and locations of firefighting assets and the rationale for those weights, (2) how FPA results were used in conjunction with other information in developing the agencies' budget requests, and (3) the extent to which the agencies' funding allocations to their field units reflected the FPA results for a given year.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2012, the Department of the Interior provided the "Business Process Review and Technical Review" document that it, along with the Forest Service, commissioned to evaluate FPA. The report did not address this recommendation. GAO contacted the Department in April 2012 and officials did not indicate they were taking any additional steps to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To increase agency transparency in using FPA to develop their budget requests and allocate funds, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should report annually to Congress on FPA's role in the budget development and allocation process. This report should include, at a minimum, information on (1) how the agencies weighted the measures FPA uses to evaluate different mixes and locations of firefighting assets and the rationale for those weights, (2) how FPA results were used in conjunction with other information in developing the agencies' budget requests, and (3) the extent to which the agencies' funding allocations to their field units reflected the FPA results for a given year.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2012, the Forest Service provided the "Business Process Review and Technical Review" document that it, along with the Department of the Interior, commissioned to evaluate FPA. The report did not address this recommendation. GAO contacted the agency in April 2012 and officials did not indicate they were taking any additional steps to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To increase Congress's and the agencies' understanding of the strengths and limitations of FPA--including the extent to which it achieves the key objectives envisioned by the 2001 report--and to fulfill one of the original objectives established for FPA, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the agencies to submit the FPA model to external peer review. This review should be initiated as soon as FPA is complete enough to allow for a thorough review, but no later than November 2009, so that its results can inform decisions about how FPA may be improved and the extent to which additional funding should be provided to the project.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of the Interior and the Forest Service contracted with Booz Allen Hamilton to conduct an independent external business process review and technical review of FPA, which was completed in March 2012.

    Recommendation: To increase Congress's and the agencies' understanding of the strengths and limitations of FPA--including the extent to which it achieves the key objectives envisioned by the 2001 report--and to fulfill one of the original objectives established for FPA, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the agencies to submit the FPA model to external peer review. This review should be initiated as soon as FPA is complete enough to allow for a thorough review, but no later than November 2009, so that its results can inform decisions about how FPA may be improved and the extent to which additional funding should be provided to the project.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service and the Department of the Interior contracted with Booz Allen Hamilton to conduct an independent external business process review and technical review of FPA, which was completed in March 2012.

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