Federal Wildfire Activities:

Current Strategy and Issues Needing Attention

RCED-99-233: Published: Aug 13, 1999. Publicly Released: Aug 13, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed how the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manage their wildfire programs, focusing on the: (1) process the Forest Service and BLM use to determine the amount of funds needed to prepare for fighting fires; (2) roles and responsibilities of the National Interagency Fire Center in mobilizing firefighting resources; and (3) types of agreements reached among federal, state, and local firefighting organizations.

GAO noted that: (1) the Forest Service and BLM use the same process to develop their wildfire preparedness budgets; (2) this includes the use of a model that determines, on the basis of historical data such as fire activity, weather, and suppression costs, the most efficient funding level for a firefighting organization; (3) the most efficient funding level is based on a calculation that minimizes fire suppression costs and the loss of natural resources on the lands; (4) for fiscal years 1996 through 1999, the agencies received about 85 percent of the wildfire preparedness funds they estimated they would need; (5) while the National Interagency Fire Center does not play a role in determining where firefighting resources should be located before a fire season begins, it is the nation's logistical support center for controlling and extinguishing wildfires; (6) as such, it coordinates the mobilization of firefighting supplies, equipment, and personnel at the federal, regional, and local levels; (7) as local and regional firefighting resources are depleted during a fire season, regional geographic coordination centers located throughout the United States obtain additional firefighting personnel and equipment through the National Interagency Coordination Center at the Fire Center; (8) to provide mutual support in suppressing wildfires, the Forest Service and BLM have entered into numerous agreements and other types of cooperative efforts with other federal, state, and local firefighting organizations; (9) while no single type of agreement appears to be better than another, agency officials agreed that without these agreements and other types of cooperative efforts, it would be virtually impossible for any firefighting organization, including the Forest Service and BLM, to manage its firefighting program; (10) several issues could affect the agencies' ability to manage their firefighting programs in the future; (11) the agencies' firefighting workforce is shrinking because some workers are no longer willing to take on firefighting as a collateral duty while employees with expertise in fire management are nearing retirement age; (12) the Forest Service and BLM are implementing a new radio technology but are purchasing different radio systems that may not be able to communicate with each other or with the systems used by other firefighting organizations; (13) the Forest Service is using an outdated test to measure the physical fitness of its firefighters; and (14) although it plans to use the same up-to-date physical fitness test that BLM uses, when it will do so is uncertain.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The technical issues surrounding the incompatibility of radios has been resolved. Currently, all radios being purchased by the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have the capability of operating in either the narrowband or wideband mode. The agencies are on target to meet the congressionally mandated date of January 2005 for converting to narrowband radios.

    Recommendation: Given the uncertainties surrounding the conversion to narrowband radio technology, the Chief of the Forest Service and the Secretary of the Interior should develop a strategy for converting to narrowband radio technology that ensures radio communications between firefighters will not be affected by the conversion. This strategy should be communicated to all firefighters. If Project-25 equipment will solve the communication problems between narrowband radio technologies and between narrowband and wideband radio technologies, the Chief and the Secretary should delay the purchase of Project-25 equipment until the equipment has been fully developed and tested.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Forest Service

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The technical issues surrounding the incompatibility of radios has been solved. Currently, all radios being purchased by the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have thecapability of operating in either the narrowband or broadband mode. The agencies are on target to meet the congressionally mandated date of January 2005 for converting to narrowband radios.

    Recommendation: Given the uncertainties surrounding the conversion to narrowband radio technology, the Chief of the Forest Service and the Secretary of the Interior should develop a strategy for converting to narrowband radio technology that ensures radio communications between firefighters will not be affected by the conversion. This strategy should be communicated to all firefighters. If Project-25 equipment will solve the communication problems between narrowband radio technologies and between narrowband and wideband radio technologies, the Chief and the Secretary should delay the purchase of Project-25 equipment until the equipment has been fully developed and tested.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Forest Service

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have developed the National Fire Plan. Working with states, local governments, and other interested parties the agencies are developing a comprehensive strategy to implement the Fire Plan. Key aspects of the Fire Plan include adequate preparedness, hazardous fuels reduction, and community assistance. These actions are aimed at ensuring that adequate firefighting resources and procedures are in place now, and in the future. Congress has appropriated about $2.9 billion in fiscal year 2001 for wildfire fighting activities and gave the agencies the authority to hire an additional 4,500 firefighters.

    Recommendation: To ensure that firefighting resources are adequate to protect federal lands and the public from the catastrophic effects of fires, the Chief of the Forest Service and the Secretary of the Interior should work together to develop a combined strategy to rebuild their firefighting workforce. In developing this strategy, they should consider ways to increase their firefighting resources, from using contract firefighting crews to requiring that all employees become qualified, in some manner, to contribute to fighting fires.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have developed the National Fire Plan. Working with states, local governments, and other interested parties the agencies are developing a comprehensive strategy to implement the Fire Plan. Key aspects of the Fire Plan include adequate preparedness, hazardous fuels reduction, and community assistance. These actions are aimed at ensuring that adequate firefighting resources and procedures are in place now, and in the future. The Congress has appropriated about $2.9 billion in fiscal year 2001 for wildfire fighting activities and gave the agencies the authority to hire an additional 4,500 firefighters.

    Recommendation: To ensure that firefighting resources are adequate to protect federal lands and the public from the catastrophic effects of fires, the Chief of the Forest Service and the Secretary of the Interior should work together to develop a combined strategy to rebuild their firefighting workforce. In developing this strategy, they should consider ways to increase their firefighting resources, from using contract firefighting crews to requiring that all employees become qualified, in some manner, to contribute to fighting fires.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On January 1, 2000, the Forest Service reinstituted the Work Capacity Test as the exclusive test for the physical fitness element of the Wildland Fire Qualifications System. As part of the Work Capacity Test, possible candidates will be asked to complete a questionnaire regarding their current physical activities.

    Recommendation: To ensure that firefighters' safety is not compromised by inadequate physical fitness tests, the Chief of the Forest Service should issue policy direction on how the work capacity test will be administered as soon as he receives the results of the Board of Review's investigation into a firefighter's death last January. In developing the agency's policy on how to administer the work capacity test, the Chief of the Forest Service should consider using BLM's screening process.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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