Congressional leaders agree on legislation that would affect the use of drones over wildfires

Leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee today announced they have reached a bipartisan agreement on a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) extension through September 30, 2017, that will affect the U.S. aviation system, including the use of unmanned aircraft, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), over wildfires.

Much of the agreement is directed toward airports and passenger screening, but four sections will be of interest to wildfire agencies.

The proposed legislation will require that the FAA convene industry stakeholders to facilitate the development of consensus standards for remotely identifying operators and owners of unmanned aircraft systems and associated unmanned aircraft. This is the first time I have heard of this idea. If implemented, when a UAS interferes with firefighting aircraft the operator could be identified, making it possible to slap them with a fine of up to $20,000, which is another provision in the agreement.

In addition, the proposed legislation requires the development of technologies to mitigate threats posed by errant or hostile unmanned aircraft systems. This could make it possible to disable a UAS that is interfering with aircraft operations over a wildfire.

The FAA is also directed to enter into agreements with the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture, as necessary, to continue the expeditious authorization of safe unmanned aircraft system operations in support of firefighting operations.

The leaders of the House and Senate said they hope to get the passed legislation to the president before the July 15 expiration of the FAA’s current authorization.

The House of Representatives version of the bipartisan legislation, HR 636, can be seen here.

California Governor vetoes three bills related to drones

California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed three bills related to regulating drones on October 3. One of them would have given firefighters immunity for disabling hobbyist drones flying over emergency situations.

At a recent congressional hearing U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry James Hubbard said there were reports of 21 drone incursions in firefighting airspace this year — 12 of them grounded aircraft until the drones were removed from the area.

More information is at the Press-Enterprise.

Colorado Governor to sign aerial firefighting bill

Colorado Firefighting Air CorpsOn May 12 Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper will sign the legislation recently passed by the House and the Senate that authorizes the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) to acquire a fleet of helicopters and air tankers to fight wildfires. 

The Governor will host a press conference at 11 a.m. at the Centennial Airport where he will sign the bill and give his annual wildfire briefing.

Colorado Senate Bill 14-164 appropriates $19.67 million and specifies that the CFAC purchase, lease, or contract for the use and operation of up to three helicopters in 2014. Beginning in 2015 and beyond the bill authorizes up to four air tankers.

The first version of the bill required certain specifications for the aircraft, including that the helicopters be able to carry 18 passengers and be capable of rappelling firefighters. The air tankers would have been outfitted for dropping retardant at night, something that has never been done on a regular basis.

The bill that passed both the House and the Senate provides maximum numbers of aircraft, but leaves everything else up to the CFAC. The bill requires that the agency adhere as nearly as possible to the recommendations spelled out in a report they released on March 28, titled “Special report: Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, report to the Governor and General Assembly on Strategies to enhance the state’s aerial firefighting capabilities”.

firefighting aircraft bill passed by both houses in Colorado

The legislation also creates a “center of excellence for advanced technology aerial firefighting”, to…:

  • Serve as a laboratory to evaluate the “three fundamental contributing factors to successful aerial firefighting: effectiveness, efficiency, and sustainability”.
  • Conduct research to evaluate new technology in a variety of settings, such as initial attack, night operations, and operations in wildland-urban interface areas.
  • Produce data and documentation on science and technology relevant to aerial firefighting.

The press conference will be held at the Centennial Airport, Denver jetCenter, Hangar A, 7625 South Peoria Circle, Englewood, Colorado 80112.

If any FireAviation readers attend the event do us a favor and send us some photos.

Comparisons of proposals for Colorado aerial resources

Recently there have been two proposals for enhancing the aerial firefighting capability in the state of Colorado. A bill has been introduced with very specific requirements for aircraft, and the new but unfunded state agency, Colorado Firefighting Air Corp (CFAC), issued a report with different recommendations.

On March 21 two state senators, Morgan Carroll and Steve King, introduced Senate Bill 164 that would authorize the CFAC to acquire helicopters and air tankers for the agency.

And a long awaited report required by the Colorado legislature with options for aerial firefighting in the state was released March 28 by the CFAC.

As you can see below in the table that we put together, the two proposals are very different.

Comparisons of Colorado aerial resources proposals

One of the unusual features of the proposed legislation is the requirement that the large air tankers be capable of night operations. As far as we know, no wildland firefighting agency in the world has routinely conducted fixed wing retardant drops at night. Dropping retardant at 150 miles per hour at 100 to 150 feet above the ground in mountainous terrain with turbulent wind conditions is very difficult in daylight conditions. The proposal by the state senators to attempt to do it at night would be a huge leap above and beyond the current norm.

We asked Senator King, who has been very active in recent months about acquiring better aerial firefighting capacity for Colorado, for his impression of the recommendations in the CFAC report that came out seven days after his bill was introduced. He said he is willing to modify his bill:

[The CFAC proposal] reiterates that the state of Colorado desperately needs aerial resources to increase our rapid-response capabilities and the effectiveness of firefighters on the ground. While SB14-164 has been criticized for being too prescriptive, we needed a jumping-off point and myself and President Carroll would be more than willing to incorporate Director Cooke’s recommendations into the bill.

 

Colorado: bill introduced to provide firefighting aircraft

Two state senators in Colorado have introduced a bill in the legislature, Senate Bill 164, that would authorize the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC) to acquire helicopters and air tankers for the newly created agency.

For the 2014 fire season the bill authorizes the acquisition by lease or contract of up to three helicopters, and in 2015 up to four “large aircraft”, presumably fixed wing air tankers. If they obtain three helicopters, one must be capable of “command and control” and another would be a Type 1 heavy ship that would have rappel ability and could carry up to 18 passengers. The air tankers must be capable of night flying operations.

The bill was introduced by President of the Senate Morgan Carroll and Senator Steve King on March 21, 11 days before the CFAC Director Paul Cooke is due to release a report on April Fools Day that would recommend the direction the new agency should take.

The bill that created the CFAC last year did not appropriate funds to operate the agency or acquire aircraft. The new bill just introduced does not yet specify a monetary amount, but it will be referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee for a fiscal note attachment and then sent to the Joint Budget Committee for recommendations on funding.

If the final version of the bill includes funding, getting it past Governor John Hickenlooper could be a challenge. He was quoted by the Durango Herald as expressing the belief that farmers and ranchers should be the first line of defense in fighting wildfires. However, the fact that one of the cosponsors of the bill is the President of the Senate is a sign that it has a chance of passing the legislature, and perhaps even overriding a veto.

Legislation introduced that would compensate families of fallen contract firefighters

(This was originally posted at Wildfire Today)

A United States Senator has introduced legislation, S. 1628: Fallen Wildland Firefighters Fair Compensation Act of 2013, that would provide for contract wildland firefighters to be covered for death and disability benefits under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act (PSOB). Currently contracted personnel fighting fire from the ground or the air who are not regular federal, state, or local agency employees are not eligible for death or disability benefits should they be killed or injured in the line of duty. For example, air tanker pilots and contract hand crew personnel are not covered. This bill, if it passes, would change that. The current version of the legislation as it was introduced yesterday is HERE. The progress of the bill can be tracked online.

The current amount of the PSOB benefit is $333,604.68 for eligible deaths occurring on or after October 1, 2013.

This bill is long overdue. We encourage you to contact your federal Senators and Representative. Ask them to co-sponsor and vote for this legislation. Here is a link you can use to identify and contact your elected officials — http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml

If you are in favor of this bill, you can sign a petition at Change.org.

Below is the text of the press release issued by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley:

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Merkley Introduces Legislation to Provide Benefits to Families of Fallen Firefighters

Legislation crafted after Oregon families were denied benefits

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Fallen Wildland Firefighters Fair Compensation Act that would allow aerial and ground contracted firefighters to be covered for death and disability benefits under the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act (PSOB). Currently, these benefits are granted to state and local police, firefighters, EMTs and also federally employed wildland firefighters, but not contracted wildland firefighters, even though 40% of firefighters who battle blazes on federal land are contracted. Senator Merkley crafted this legislation after hearing from families of contracted Oregon firefighters who had been killed in 2008 and were denied death benefits.

“Every summer across Oregon, thousands of contract firefighters risk their lives fighting to protect our federal forests, grasslands, and lands,” said Merkley. “It is past time that we make sure that if the worst happens while on the job, the families of fallen firefighters are granted proper benefits.”

Typically, contracted firefighters account for 10,000-15,000 people each year. While these men and women work and train right alongside of and even receive direction from the U.S. Forest Service, in the unfortunate event of death or traumatic injury, contract firefighters cannot receive comparable benefits to federal employees.

This bill would give the surviving spouses and children of fallen firefighters the same survivor benefits that those of other firefighters and law enforcement receive.”

Colorado creates Firefighting Air Corps

On Wednesday Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill, Senate Bill 245, that created the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps. The Corps is organized within the Department of Public Safety in the Division of Fire Prevention and Control. There was no money associated with the passage of the bill, so until funds are appropriated, it will apparently exist in name only.

If the state does come up with some funding, according to the legislation:

The Division may purchase, acquire, lease, or contract for the provision of firefighting aircraft, facilities, equipment, and supplies for aerial firefighting; and retrofit, maintain, staff, operate, and support the firefighting aircraft or contract for the provision of those services.

In a related story, on Monday, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman signed into law LB 634, the Wildfire Control Act of 2013 which authorizes the state to contract for one Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT).

You may remember that one of the sponsors of the Colorado bill, State Senator Steve King, had an idea to help defray some of the costs of the program:

Can you imagine what advertising value would be if you had a Colorado Rockies sign on the tail of slurry bomber?

So we sponsored a competition for designs showing potential advertising and asked our readers to vote on their preferred choice. The one below by Jerome Laval is the leader in the poll, which is still open.

Jerome Laval P3

 

 

Thanks go out to Bean

Collapsible belly tank for a Blackhawk

RECOIL Blackhawk fire suppression tank

The 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill passed by the Senate included an earmark of $4,160,00 for fixed belly tanks for National Guard Blackhawk helicopters. It was referred to as the Recoil UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter R60 Wildland Fire-Fighting Tank System. When we covered that on October 7, 2009 at Wildfire Today that is all we knew about the project. But a little more information has emerged. It appears that the tank in these photos may be what was funded in the legislation passed by the Senate.

RECOIL Blackhawk fire suplpression tank

The photos are from the web site of SHG, a company in Israel that deals in fire suppression equipment. They represent the manufacturer of the tanks, Recoil Suppression Systems, in Merlin, Oregon. SHG also represents Caylym, the outfit that is trying to sell the boxes that when filled with water or retardant would be dumped out of the back of a C-130 or other cargo plane, hopefully slowing the spread of a wildfire.

SHG describes the Blackhawk tank:

A circular-framed retractable suppressant tank that attaches to the airframe at the cargo hook point. The electric operating mechanism is located within the helicopter itself, to operate by crew members. In addition, the system has a security mechanism for a rapid emptying in case of an emergency. The system is approved for use in urban areas. The tank volume is 3,800 liters [1,000 US gallons], and can contain all kinds of water – fresh, brackish and salty water.

Messages we left with Recoil Suppression Systems asking for information were not immediately returned, and we were not able to find a web site for the company. Dunn and Bradstreet says the company has annual sales of $950,000 and has 17 employees. But we have no confirmation that any of the tanks were ever produced and sold.

At least one other company is working on a Blackhawk belly tank, Simplex.

Simplex Blackhawk belly tank
Simplex Blackhawk belly tank. Simplex photo