BLM struggling to keep SEATs under contract

Tanker 892 single engine air tanker wildfire

Above: Tanker 892, a SEAT, drops near the Aldrich Lookout Tower on the Sunflower Fire in Grant County, Oregon in 2014. Photo by Todd McKinley.

For the previous three years the Bureau of Land Management had 33 Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) under Exclusive Use (EU) contracts. As we enter the 2017 wildfire season there are none.

In 2014 the agency awarded EU contracts for 33 SEATs that guaranteed one year with a 100-day Mandatory Availability Period and four additional optional years. In 2016 the vendors were notified that two optional years, 2017 and 2018, would not be activated. One of the affected aircraft companies told us that the BLM said the reason was a lack of funds. (UPDATE May 31: Jessica Gardetto, a BLM spokesperson, responded today to an earlier mail from us, explaining that the funds allocated in that 2014 contract had been spent, therefore they had to start over again with a new contract.)

In August, 2016 the agency began the solicitation process for a new EU contract. After it was awarded four vendors filed a total of six protests with the Government Accountability Office. As of today, May 30, 2017, four of those have been dismissed and two are still undecided.

Currently the only BLM SEAT contract in effect is a Call When Needed, or On Call contract that was awarded several weeks ago. A couple of days ago there were seven SEATs actively working in the Southwest Geographic Area on an On Call basis.

An aircraft vendor that operates SEATs told us that one of the issues his company is concerned about is the evaluation process for rating and selecting which vendors receive contract awards. He said the BLM places far too much emphasis on the empty weight of the aircraft while not considering enhancements that may add weight, but contribute to effectiveness and safety. The lightest SEAT is automatically favored, he said, while those with a backup radio, single point fueling behind the wing, GPS, a better performing Trotter retardant gate, ADS-B, larger engine, or a larger prop are penalized.

He said, “I just want to see a fair and impartial evaluation”.

One of the factors that almost destroyed the large air tanker industry around the turn of the century was the U.S. Forest Service’s over emphasis on the lowest bid price. This forced potential tanker vendors to resort to discarded aircraft designed for World War II and the Korean War and gave them little incentive to perform routine but expensive inspections and maintenance. In 2002 when the wings literally fell off two large air tankers in mid-air killing five crew members, the USFS started to re-think their lowest cost policy. Over the next 10 years the number of large air tankers on EU contracts declined from 44 to 9. Following that lost decade the USFS contracting process and the vendors’ fleets were reinvented.

Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the BLM said, “The BLM will ensure that we have adequate SEATs/wildland firefighting resources for the 2017 fire season, regardless of how we contract our aircraft. The BLM will provide an adequate response to all wildfire activity, whether it’s an extreme, normal, or below-normal fire season this year.”

12 thoughts on “BLM struggling to keep SEATs under contract”

  1. I’m afraid BLM’s spokesperson has no idea of the real world costs of seats from the price list I have seen it’s going to cost the taxpayers an extra 600 to 800 dollars per day.

  2. SEAT contracts are not awarded to the lowest bidder, but on a best value system, which includes, among other things, evaluations of the operators by each SEAT manager assigned to each aircraft throughout the season. Cost, reliability, performance, support, and numerous other aspects figure into best value.

    SEAT operators are NOT being penalized for safety or performance features, and certainly not for small items such as radios or the weight of those radios.

    The loss of the EU contracts can be traced directly to a particular operator’s protests. The reason that operator did not receive exclusive contracts has nothing to do with weight.

    1. Doug from my experience the project inspectors on the contract are the ones who give the reviews not the individual seat managers. Do you have different information regarding that?

      1. Project managers were assigned for EU seats, to which SEAT managers would report, as well as the SECO. One function of each assigned SEAT manager is to complete an evaluation of each aircraft/pilot/company assigned. The evaluation comes from the SEAT manager, who has worked directly with and is in the best position to evaluate the SEAT performance while under the supervision of that SEAT Manager.

        1. Page 7 of the Interagency Single Engine Air Tanker Operations Guide (ISOG) provides the following regarding evaluations by SEAT Managers (SEMG’s), as part of the listed duties:

          “Complete the Evaluation Report on Contractor Performance (OAS-136A) at the end of their assignment for each of the aircraft they have managed, and submit a copy to the Contracting Officer (CO).”

    1. I am pretty sure that the 4 FB’s in Alaska are under Alaska DNR control. Also there are some in Washington as well that are under the Wash DNR.

  3. Agreed. The reason for the protests is the low ballers dis not get contracts or as many line items as they wanted because their performance has been subpar. This does and should affect the awards.
    What a ridiculous way to do business! Some of these folks in industry and government should be ashamed of themselves.

  4. The four Fire Bosses in Alaska are on EU for the BLM AFS. They generally do not get counted as SEATs as they are not used for retardant. In Alaska the Alaska DOF contracts for two Convairs and the BLM has the water scoopers (formerly 2 CL215s, now 4 FireBosses). All the Tactical aircraft in Alaska are centrally / cooperatively managed through AICC.

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